The Aurora Airport Master Plan: Escalating jet fuel profits are the major incentive to seek FAA grant funding to lengthen the runway

Here’s a picture showing three paragraphs from the draft of the KUAO Airport Master Plan draft, from last February.

The paragraphs summarize the three main services provided at the vast majority of General Aviation (GA) airports: fuel sales, flight training, and FBOs (fixed base operators). How these businesses operate, and how well they are regulated by the ‘airport manager’, can mean major differences in not just how they impact airport neighbors, but also in how well profits flow into the local community. It is very common in U.S. airports for some or all of these services to be provided by long-distance owners, even private equity firms, with business models that impose local impacts while generating profits that flow off to distant owners.

Regarding fuel sales, a few questions…

  1. who is making how much money, in profits, selling fuel through-the-fence at Aurora? Three times in the last month, a quick comparison of area fuel prices (done with this link) showed KUAO fuel prices are routinely much higher, compared with airports from Albany to Scappoose and Troutdale. Through December, jet fuel prices at KUAO were never lower than $7.60 per gallon, while the same fuel at Hillsboro was always offered at $4.92-$5.02 per gallon (not far away, and with a longer runway, too!). This shows the power of monopoly pricing, as Atlantic is the sole Jetfuel seller at both KUAO and at the nearby airport with the biggest runways and round-the-clock emergency services: PDX. So, with a million gallons of Jet-A sold at KUAO in an average year, how many millions in profits went to who, each year, for the last ten years at Aurora?
  2. how exactly is this fuel service set up at Aurora? Is fuel stored on airport, or off-airport on private property? Does any fueling happen on-airport, or is it all through-the-fence? Is there a fuel island, or is it all delivered via mobile fuel trucks? And, what documentation is there on the age and integrity of the fuel tanks, so we can be confident these deep, rich farm soils are not being contaminated?

Regarding Flight Training, two entities are listed. Willamette is through-the-fence, operating off of private land in the northeast corner of the airport. ‘Aurora Flight Training Academy’ is the other; it is the latest version of Aurora Aviation, which is the Bennett family’s multi-generational FBO at the airport, going all the way back to 1968. But, a bit of online research shows this: “In early 2016, Aurora Flight Training joined forces with American Flight Schools and is now a proud member of the American Flight School family.” Clicking through produces a list of ‘American Flight School’ locations, at five other airports (KAPA, KBJC, KCFO, KLVK, and KEAR) in California, Colorado, and Nebraska. Not surprisingly, two of those airports (Centennial and Rocky Mountain) have HUGE impact problems on surrounding residential communities, due to concentrated flight patterns. And students are not just local; American Flight School partners with Liberty University (in Virginia) and Purdue University (in Indiana) to import student pilots. The impacts are local, upon the community below, but where do the profits go? Shouldn’t we, as impacted local citizens, be able to know precisely what the business arrangement is, whereby Aurora ‘joined forces’ with American? Were they bought out, or is it a real partnership … and who owns what? Let us ‘follow the money’.

Lastly, regarding  FBO’s, the sentence reads, “The current level of service reflects the Airport’s ability to support the local based aircraft fleet and attract transient aircraft, including business aviation users in a highly competitive market.” Fancy words, but what are we saying here? The ‘local based aircraft fleet’ is mostly off-airport, in private hangars and aircraft storage condominiums on private land, with cheap through-the-fence use of this publicly funded facility. The ‘transient aircraft’ are mostly reduced down to a few jets serving elite clients on carbon-intensive charter flights (who then need to buy over-priced KUAO jetfuel), or to students flying in from Hillsboro or Troutdale (who generally use only the services of the control tower, not the FBOs). And, that ‘highly competitive market’, is it reflected by…

  • the inflated monopoly price on jetfuel?
  • the huge overprice on leaded aviation fuel, shared by collusion between Willamette & Atlantic?
  • the ‘price competition’ offered by the complete non-existence of an actual ‘on-airport’ FBO selling fuel and services?

…or, is it just the mediocrity competition, between ODAV and FAA, both failing to regulate and manage the role and evolution of this impactful airport? They serve only aviation money interests. This airport is the biggest revenue generator for ODAV, so ODAV is not motivated toward change. And, FAA keeps providing more than $3 Billion dollars in AIP money each year (which mostly comes from airline passenger taxes); this is the money ‘carrot on the stick’ that entices a handful of airport operators (Millar and Bennett are top of that short list) to campaign hard for a longer runway and thus more fuel sales. It is not a competition; it’s a collusion, with both ODAV and FAA choosing to look the other way, letting this through-the-fence mess get worse each decade. 

Is Septic at KUAO a ‘Constrained Operation’?

The image above is from p.2-30 of the February 2022 draft version of Ch. 1-3 (83p PDF), as shared with the PAC in the current Master Plan process. Orange markings were added by aiREFORM. Note the five green ‘drain fields’ mapped on ODAV lands.

In the same document, at p.2-39, there is text briefly summarizing Sewer/Septic issues. It states, “Sanitary is provided by individual and shared drain field/septic tank systems. There are at least nine individual drain fields located on ODAV owned property that are shared for both aviation related uses on both private and publicly owned land.” This seems to suggest, ODAV lands are being used for drain fields serving structures on private through-the-fence (TTF) properties; it also suggests, at least four drain fields are not yet shown on this Master Plan diagram.

The density of development at KUAO is surprising, especially on these prime agricultural soils. Most of us in this area, if we own acreage and seek to build, one of our biggest front-end problems is to figure out, ‘how do we handle septic wastes’ and ‘will the soils support a sustainable septic drain field’. Sustainable is a key concept; it is NOT sustainable to need to have septic waste pumped out of holding tanks by a weekly service (the present situation, according to multiple people).

The evolution of Aurora Airport has included a huge shift to large hangars and massive impervious surfaces, to accommodate jets larger and heavier than are supposed to use the runway and taxiway. The extent of impervious surfaces developed at the Aurora TTF parcels begs for answers to these questions:

  1. Where precisely are ALL drain fields, how big, and how plumbed to serve which structures (both on and off ODAV lands)?
  2. What are the actual septic demands, and is the current drain field capacity sufficient to meet that demand? If additional drain fields are needed, what sizes, and where will they fit on FAA’s ALP (the critical document, the Airport Layout Plan)? For each plumbed facility, on and off the airport parcel, people should know: how many fixtures, how many projected employees or visitors with how many projected daily uses.
  3. Are these drain fields legal and safe, by Oregon standards? What do the permits say, and do the as-builts conform with the permit designs? How are they positioned reference drainage ditches and surface water features?
  4. Do any septic line locations impact plans for the investment of public funds into runways, taxiways, or other design elements?
  5. Do any drain field locations impact potential new facilities, such as hangars or FBO buildings?
  6. Is FAA OK with drain fields in locations where emergency equipment may need to respond to aviation accidents?

All of these questions – and the answers – need to be fully incorporated into the current Master Plan record. FAA and ODAV need to press this point, to ensure Century West produces the Master Plan content that truly informs everyone, and aids eventual decision-making.

To Sham or Not to Sham? Ah, yes, another Aurora Airport Master Plan Process…

The current Master Plan process for Aurora Airport is a classic case study, showing how aviation interests work to suppress airport expansion opposition and force their own self-serving pro-expansion agenda. And the aviation interests are not just a few pilots or operators at Aurora. This is a state airport, run by the state of Oregon, via the Oregon Department of Aviation (ODAV). Oversight comes from two entities with a long history of taking care of pilots while making a mess for the rest of us: the ‘Oregon State Aviation Board’ (OSAB) oversees ODAV, and FAA ‘signs off’ on the key steps of the work product, the eventual ‘Aurora Airport Master Plan Update’.

The previous Master Plan process blew up almost twelve years ago. At that time, the contractor and ODAV had a rare moment of good judgment, when on 3/10/2011 they presented a recommendation to the OSAB for no runway extension. The reaction by pilots on OSAB quickly nudged an aggressive campaign by a beehive of other Oregon pilots, and by Fall the ‘preferred alternative’ morphed into a 1,000-ft runway extension. It was a sham. Years later it was realized that, in all the commotion, authorities never got around to formally adopting the plan. Embarrassing, but not a problem; FAA stepped in and is now spending nearly a million dollars in public money, to have a contractor, Century West, create a new Master Plan. The process today and the many returning players echo strongly the horrible events around the 2011 process. It is hard to shake off the feeling this is yet another sham.

“It is beyond dispute that a lengthening of the runway, to allow larger and heavier fuel loads, benefits an elite core of operators and adjacent landowners who sell aviation fuel. Their goal is clearly to make more money selling larger volumes of fuel… and ODAV collects more
airport revenues in the process.”

So, what’s in this Aurora Airport Master Plan, for people impacted by airports elsewhere in the United States? A LOT!! So often, for someone being run around by rogue pilots and out-of-control airports, one of the most empowering tools is simply understanding the process. Not just the process as written up ad nauseam in boring FAA and contractor prose, but also HOW the process is played by the critical players: the airport authority, the FAA, and the pro-airport community (mostly pilots and aviation commercial interests).

This aiREFORM Post is the first in a series that will dive into the history and details of Aurora Airport, not just to help a few Oregonians seeking to tamp down over-expansion at Aurora, but also to educate others far from the rich farmlands of the Willamette Valley.

Click here to view a letter sent to two people seeking citizen engagement in this Master Plan process: Sarah Lucas (an ODAV aviation planner) and Brandy Steffen (a contractor at JLA Public Involvement).

Activist Erin Brockovich to Speak in East Portland


Saturday, 2 April 2016, from 3:00pm to 7:00pm,
at Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark Street

20160402scp.. See Erin Brokovich (promo for speaking engagement in Portland, OR)

She is not an aviation impact activist (yet!) but her efforts to clean up industrial hazards in California are legendary. The Eastside Portland Air Coalition is offering Erin Brockovich as the keynote speaker for their Community Air Forum. Admission is free.