Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland addressed Middle Tennessee State University flight students’ concerns about the redistribution of airplane tie downs at the city’s municipal airport.
“What the university and the city have been in the conversation to say is that, in Southern terms, ‘We’ve got a five-pound sack in the airport, and we can’t put 10 pounds of flour in a five-pound sack,’” said McFarland about the space available on the landlocked 47,050 square foot runway. “Even through our grant assurances with the FAA with TDOT, we can’t have one user that dominates the traffic in the airport.”
The airport is funded through the city’s general fund; however, any shortcomings must be made up with local taxpayers’ dollars.
Assistant City Manager Gary Whitaker sent three letters to the groups leasing tie-down and hangar space at the airport at the end of June. MTSU Aerospace Department Chair Wendy Beckman received a 30-day notice that the city would begin to scale down the 34 tie-down spaces the university has rented along the main ramp.
Five spaces would not be renewed after June 30, 2021, another five after Sept. 30 and another five after Nov. 30. That would bring the university’s new total of tie-downs available to be leased to 19.
Mike Jones, owner of Mike Jones Aircraft, LLC, and Jim Gardner, owner of Murfreesboro Aviation, also received letters on the redistribution plans.
Jones' business would lose seven tie-down lease agreements and five T-hangar lease agreements with the completion of Hangar 1 next January. When that project is finished, he is expected to gain three additional ramp tie-downs in front of the hangar.
Gardner's business would lose one tie-down on the main ramp after Nov. 30, but two additional tie-downs would be provided closer to the business.
In August, the city received a letter from Transportation Manager Brian Fedders with the TDOT's Aeronautics Division stating that the gradual reduction of the university's tie-down spaces may not comply with Grant guidelines.
Fedders recommended taking no further action without consulting TDOT or the FAA and that any removed spaces should be returned at an "appropriate lease and lease rate" unless they are not being used.
A report put together by Airport Director Chad Gehrke said that MTSU’s flight program has grown exponentially within the last few years. In the fall of 2017, there were 408 Professional Pilot Program students enrolled. As of last fall, this number has more than doubled to a total of 886 students within the program, which is just over a 117% increase.
The number of pilots occupying airspace at any given time has increased as well.
The city partnered with MTSU to have Virtower, an operation tracking technology, keep a running record of the numbers. McFarland said the top concern was the number of touch-and-go flight maneuvers that are taking place on a regular basis.
“Murfreesboro in March and April of 2021 experienced the highest number of aircrafts in its history. MTSU averaged 77% of those operations with 30 to 60% of those being touch-and-gos,” said McFarland.
The volume of traffic caused the city to receive numerous complaints from other pilots and residents living in the area. McFarland, who also lives about one mile from the airport, said it would be a “false argument” to place blame on homeowners who chose to live in such close proximity.
He emphasized that the solutions being considered to ease some of the spacing issues taking place at the airport are not intended to create a “MTSU vs. the city of Murfreesboro” scenario.
“This is not about sound. This is not about trying to hurt MTSU. This is just about how much we can handle at our airport,” said McFarland, who fielded questions from a live chat of students.
One suggestion has been made by the city is for the university to implement a limit on the number of students who are able to participate in the program. The number would be determined by the university.
Other airports in neighboring cities and counties have also been consulted in an attempt to disperse some of the traffic that's being seen and heard in Murfreesboro. McFarland said that the city would even be willing to consider setting up accounts at those airports so MTSU pilots can purchase fuel to support these other local operations.
“We are not telling the university that they’ve got to move. I think that’s a decision that the university has to make has to make on what they really want to see their program become and turn into,” said McFarland.