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Airports Help Support Rural North Carolina Communities

A small-airport runway in a rural mountain town

Since the Wright brothers’ first flight, aviation has played a defining role in the history of North Carolina. And in recent history, the aviation industry has played a major role in North Carolina’s flight up the economic ladder. 

North Carolina consistently ranks as one of the top states for business. And thanks in part to a North Carolina Department of Transportation economic report — conducted by NC State’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) — lawmakers know how important the aviation industry is to the state economy’s continued success.

ITRE and NCDOT first published a report on the economic impacts of aviation in North Carolina in 2006, and the most recent update was published in January 2019. In turn, public airports have seen regular funding increases in the state budget, says Daniel Findley, a senior research associate at ITRE who focuses on economic and policy assessment and is a lead author of the January 2019 report.

There are 72 public airports in North Carolina, only ten of which are commercial airports (that offer regularly scheduled commercial flights, like Raleigh-Durham International airport). Non-commercial, or general aviation, airports are smaller and often located in suburban or rural areas — but the role they play should not be overlooked.

“The 62 general aviation airports in North Carolina play a critical role in driving economic growth, investment, jobs and tourism in the state,” says Amanda Conner, manager of aviation business development at NCDOT. 

Conner says that general aviation airports are an “attractive leveraging tool” for recruiting and retaining businesses in the state because they’re less congested and allow convenient access to companies’ facilities. What’s more, these airports become crucial hubs after natural disasters and during other emergency-response situations.

“Air services are vital for delivering supplies and rescue services in North Carolina, as exemplified during recent hurricanes Florence and Dorian,” Conner says.

The bottom line is that general aviation airports can be a major benefit to their communities with the services they provide — especially in rural and “economically distressed” areas.

“We found that North Carolina’s general aviation airports often serve as a focal point of economic development in their communities,” Findley says. “Not only do they provide over 25,000 jobs and produce nearly $5 billion in economic output, but they’re especially important in the most economically distressed areas of our state — where they provide a salary that’s roughly $20,000 higher than the median annual per capita income.”.

Over 90% of North Carolinians live within a 30-minute drive of a public airport. For business owners, these convenient connections allow their companies to grow while staying in and continuing to support the communities where they began. 

A small propeller-powered airplane in front of a private hangar.

Pike Enterprises Inc., a nationwide provider of construction, engineering and repair services for energy utilities, has kept its headquarters in Mount Airy, North Carolina, where it was founded in 1945. And since the Mount Airy-Surry County Airport was built in 1968, it’s been “invaluable” to Pike’s transportation needs, says James Banner, vice president of human resources, risk and government relations.

“The proximity of the airport has allowed Pike to provide excellent service to our over 300 utility, municipal and cooperative customers across the nation,” Banner says. “Whether to assist with storm response by providing truck drivers to relocate specialized vehicles, to provide mechanics and parts to repair damaged equipment, or to fly our management team to meet with customers on short notice.”

In Tarboro, North Carolina, Town Manager Troy Lewis says access to the Tarboro-Edgecombe Airport is an important tool for economic development, which “undoubtedly makes it easier to do business in Tarboro and Edgecombe County.”

Findley says the local property taxes paid on private aircraft housed at general aviation airports also make a difference — helping pay for teacher salaries in the county in which they reside. In economically distressed counties, Findley says this tax revenue covered the county portion of salary for nearly 1,500 teachers, a local supplement that is key to recruitment and retention. The general aviation airports in Rutherford and Franklin counties alone covered the county portion of 109 teachers’ salaries.

Not only do general aviation airports impact the economic livelihood of rural North Carolinians, but in some cases, they can quite literally be a lifesaver. 

“The Tarboro-Edgecombe Airport is a lifeline for this rural area and literally saves lives by providing a link from the local hospital to medical centers in more metropolitan areas,” Lewis says.  

As North Carolina continues to grow, Gov. Cooper has made clear that he aims to make sure rural areas are not left behind. And future research may show that further investment in the state’s general aviation airports would be a sound investment in rural North Carolina.

Findley and his team have started work on the next edition of the NCDOT aviation report. They’re also testing and developing methods to accurately measure the air traffic that comes through North Carolina’s general aviation airports. General aviation airports don’t have an air traffic control tower, which means, among other things, no one is constantly and officially counting the number of planes taking off from and landing at the airport. Gathering these numbers, Findley says, is a logical next step in being able to provide data that relays information to decision-makers in a meaningful way.

“We definitely want to be able to learn more about the impacts general aviation airports have on rural communities,” Findley says. “We recognize the value of using these kinds of economic assessments to communicate the real-world impact of transportation investments.”

[major-link url=”” target=”_top”]Learn more about the Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE)[/major-link]