Two opening volleys for 2009 on the airport controversy appeared in the CH Herald and the CH News respectively this Sunday.
An article by Neil Offen in the CHH ("National pilots group pushes for new airport") leads with: "A national pilots and aircraft owners group plans to meet with UNC system President Erskine Bowles early this year to push for the creation of a new airport in Orange County."
Thus, AOPA proclaims its first formal move of the year - no surprise other than their choice of Offen to open the curtain. The article itself only skirts underlying issues in the controversy and sports only the briefest reference to AOPA's history on Horace Williams. However, it does touch tricky ground when it echoes the disengenous idea that pilots serving on the authority would seriously consider "if a new airport should be built."
A real skew seems to appear when Offen writes that "the university's medical fleet" is "the biggest user of the airport." Describing AHEC as "the university's medical fleet" implies that the AHEC planes serve exclusively UNC's medical school's and hospital's needs. By now, there's been more than enough discussion of AHEC that the media should know it's a state- and federally-funded program with the program director's office at UNC, but regional AHEC offices located all around the state, one as close as Duke. The Medical Air fleet for AHEC is based at the UNC airport, but it's not UNC's medical fleet.
More pointedly, the local media by now should be well aware the majority of airport users are private pilots, so making AHEC a single entity is a perfect example of using statistics to tilt an argument. Of course there's no other single user who represents almost a quarter of the traffic, but that still leaves more than 75% that are not AHEC planes.
In ironic contrast, the numbers are clear in Cliff Heath's opinion piece in the CH News ("Airport moves threaten reputation"): "Med Air flights used for AHEC-related business account for around 22 percent of the flights out of Horace Williams."
Heath's excellent piece takes the position that the way decisions have been made are shameful and embarrassing for the university and the state.
What's particularly valuable about the piece is that he asks the core question, and does so at the outset: "Why does UNC need a new UNC-owned, run and controlled airport?" - and he answers it himself: "...because UNC wants one." Moreover, he asks the question in the very valid contexts of a deeply troubled economy, and the questionable and covert process used by University, airport advocates, and legislators.
However, by limiting the question to why UNC needs a new airport, rather than any airport at all, his argument loses something -- unless he is indirectly but purposely leaving open the option of keeping Horace Williams open indefinitely.
He asks if it makes any sense to "frivolously spend $50 million for a new UNC airport after spending $3.5 million for a hanger at RDU and relocating AHEC?" An obvious quick answer to that is not to spend any money at all to do either thing. Better he should have asked whether it makes any sense ever to spend that $50 million? Similarly, he could and should have asked how much it will ultimately save UNC - and taxpayers - to spend the $3.5 million on RDU facilities and leave AHEC there.
Regarding both pieces: the core question is still whether UNC truly needs a general aviation airport in the first place.