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Wagging the Dog: Should Online Reviews Dictate Multi-Million Dollar Infrastructure Projects?

On January 31, 2019, a public “consultation session” was held to discuss the state review process for several projects collectively called the Airport Improvements Plan at Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Outside, it was 19 degrees with a northwest wind at 15 knots. Inside the building, though, it was considerably more frosty.

A concern voiced early was that the applicant, the MV Airport (MVY), was bundling noncontroversial projects – routine repairs and safety upgrades – with the more controversial elements bearing on growth and development, namely the expansion of the terminal, roadway, and parking. The response from MVY was that “it is an FAA ‘game’ for reserving future funding. It doesn’t mean a project will actually be done. But if you feature it in your Master Plan, and you include it in the current review process, then when it becomes a priority in the future, you’re positioned to apply for FAA grant funding.”

Therefore, some of the projects are only hypothetical, and “are not even close to being completed.” The concern of many, of course, is that by including these projects in the Master Plan or state permitting review process they become an inevitable reality – one that the community does not wish for, now or later.

While a common thread throughout the audience’s comments was that bigger is not always better, the theme emerging from MVY’s presentation was that what we see as expansion is really just “stuff that’s considered basic services.” In response, many asked “basic services for whom? What’s driving this?”

The applicant characterized the broad goal as moving traffic along at high-volume times: “Airlines just need to function properly because passengers rate these airlines.” When the airlines receive poor ratings from customers, they put pressure on the airport to cure the problem. To anyone who has flown commercial in recent years it may sound unbelievable, but apparently our Island’s overwhelmed roadways and infrastructure have created for the airlines an unacceptably high “passenger dissatisfaction rate.”  

MVY acknowledged that the “bottlenecking” disrupting smooth operation and traffic flow is because of scheduling decisions made by the airlines. During the summer months, the large carriers have increasingly chosen to compress arrivals into a narrow time window, generally 11 am – 3 pm. The result is that it overwhelms the current passenger handling and traffic circulation systems at MVY.

Those gathered asked . . . why? Couldn't the airport demand that the airlines spread out arrivals to prevent bottlenecking? MVY answered, “Unfortunately we can’t do this because this is a public use airport . . . We can’t say no and be a public airport (which receives funding from the FAA).” Making this whole conundrum particularly absurd is the fact that it is the airlines’ own scheduling decisions that have created the demand spike, which has in turn led to their poor online user reviews.

Vineyard Haven resident (and VCS Board member) Marc Rosenbaum characterized the problem in terms of equity and fairness. Noting that it is year-round Island residents who bear the impacts of the traffic flying in and out of MVY airport, he asked what percentage of year-round people actually use the airport: “Is MVY serving an increasingly narrow segment of the population that’s different than the year-round community?”

The applicant responded that such a question “is not part of our responsibility. The airport’s responsibility is to FAA to meet the needs. That isn’t occurring when airport customers are angry and staff are frustrated.”

MVY then returned to the broader point that their hands are tied because of their reliance on FAA funding. On two occasions they appeared to offer a neat and tidy solution: “If the Vineyard doesn’t want an airport, that’s a public policy question,” and then later, “if the community doesn’t want to meet the needs . . . we’re not mandated to take FAA money.” While VCS would in fact welcome a reduction in service at MVY, particularly large jet arrivals, we are skeptical that this is something being seriously considered by the Airport Commission.

At VCS, we identify the disconnect here as being that MVY needs to manage their facilities in a way that is responsive to their customers’ needs, but to do so while taking the community interest into account. The moral rightness of using federal dollars – taxes collected from the nation at large – to pay for infrastructure expansion that is unwanted by the community but needed to accommodate artificial demand spikes created by the scheduling algorithms of private airlines, was not lost on those gathered. As one attendee pointedly said, “you are sowing the seeds of ruining the Island. You need to find a way to make it work better.”