Top members of Congress are requesting earmarks to send federal taxpayer dollars to regional airports in their districts that are used for private jet traffic, records show.
The requests have been made under the earmarking process, which funnels money to named projects in districts, as opposed to general allocations for which projects must compete for funding. It would see tens of millions of dollars funneled to private airports in members’ home districts, aiding private jet traffic, with some requests explicitly citing such traffic as the reason.
Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee, has requested over $36 million to fund upgrades to the Max Westheimer Airport 20 miles south of Oklahoma City. The upgrades will be used to expand the airport’s runway as well as add hangars to accommodate larger private jets, which have been using the airport more frequently. (RELATED: Nancy Pelosi Asks For $10 Million Earmark To Bankroll Green Conservancy, Upgrade ‘MLK Fountain’)
“Over the last couple of years, the airport has started seeing more Gulfstream 5 activity. The airport is unable to handle this size of aircraft regularly,” writes Cole in his request proposal as the reason for his request. The Gulfstream V, a luxury private jet primarily used by corporate and wealthy travelers, costs between $19 million and $22 million, according to Jet Advisors, with an annual operating cost between $1.8 million and $3 million, per Liberty Jet.
Cole’s proposal also stated that expanding the runway would be a business opportunity for the airport, which is owned by the University of Oklahoma, an institution with a $1.2 billion endowment. When explaining the federal policy nexus justifying taxpayer funds for the project, Cole cited legislation that relates to the Secretary of Transportation’s authority to make grants for airport improvements in the national interest.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Cole stated that “A majority of the airplanes based at the airport (80%) are single-engine aircraft…used for flight training for aviation students to address the current and growing pilot shortage. The airport is much more than a private jet airport.”
Cole is not the only House Republican who has requested money for private jet airports. Republican Rep. John Joyce of Pennsylvania has requested $4.5 million to construct aircraft hangars at the Johnstown-Cambria Airport, which is 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. The airport services private jet traffic, according to AirNav.com, a public database of airport operations.
“This will provide the airport with revenue through leasing the individual hangars to aircraft owners,” Joyce wrote in a letter to the House Appropriations Committee, explaining that the money obtained could be used by the airport to make upgrades for safety. In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Joyce stated that “the Johnstown-Cambria airport is public and not private.”
Joyce and Cole are joined in their requests by Republican Rep. Trent Kelly of Mississippi, who has earmarked $4.9 million for Olive Branch Airport near Memphis, Tennessee, an airport that receives private jet traffic. The funds would be used to lay asphalt on the airport’s tarmac.
“Many of our Fortune 100 and 500 companies depend on the safety, capacity, and security of corporate air travel the airport affords the business community,” wrote a business executive in a letter of support Kelly uploaded onto his website. Other letters note that the airport is a center for Civil Air Patrol and operates programs such as “Pilots for Paws” to transport pets to prospective owners across the United States.
The earmarks are a few of the 5,067 earmark requests submitted to the Appropriations Committee by Members of Congress for Fiscal Year 2024. Their use in Congress has been controversial and was banned from 2011 to 2021 when they were reintroduced by House Democrats despite staunch opposition from conservatives, who argue they enable “pork-barrel spending.”
Kelly did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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