Jackson officials claim to win big in battle over airport control

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The Jackson Municipal Airport Authority is counting a recent move by a federal regulatory agency as a victory in its quest to prevent a new board from being appointed on July 1.

Dr. Rosie Pridgen, chairwoman of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority.

Jackson Municipal Airport Authority

Dr. Rosie Pridgen, chairwoman of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority

In a news release, the airport authority points to a June 6 entry in the federal register of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has oversight of the nation’s airports. The document clarifies the agency’s “authority and policy for monitoring and approving requests to change the sponsorship of, and/or operational responsibility for, an airport from one public agency to another public agency when there is a dispute surrounding the proposed change.”

One of the hottest topics of this year’s legislative session was a bill sponsored by Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, which would replace the current five-member Jackson airport board, whose members city officials appoint, with a nine-member board, some of whom would need to have aviation-industry experience, appointed by state leaders. Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill in early May, which prompted a petition drive and at least one federal lawsuit from people wanting to keep the current structure of the board.

“The state established (the JMAA) by statute and we have the right to change any statute. The FAA doesn’t dictate how we pass our laws,” Harkins told Mississippi Today in a telephone interview.

As recently as June 6, Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber has said the city would go to court if necessary.

Opponents of the bill hope the FAA’s recent action will tip the scale in Jackson’s favor.

According to the agency’s federal register entry, “While state or local legislative action, or a judicial action, as the case may be, may seek to change an airport’s ownership, sponsorship, governance, or operations, only the FAA has the authority to determine sponsor eligibility, approve and formally change airport sponsorship, and approve and issue a new Airport Operating Certificate.

“The FAA has a statutory obligation to ensure that an airport sponsor/operator is capable of assuming all grant assurances, safety compliance, and other federal obligations, and has the expertise to operate the airport.”

The agency also advises state and local governments considering legislation to change airport owners to work with the current sponsor and to seek technical assistance from the FAA.

The battle over control of Jackson’s airport mirrors the long-running drama that has played out in Charlotte, where North Carolina state leaders passed a bill in 2013 to turn the city-run airport over to the state. Charlotte took the state to court, where the issue remains ensnared in legal limbo. The FAA ruled that the airport would remain under Charlotte’s control until the issue is resolved.

“We commend the FAA for making its position crystal clear,” Jackson Municipal Airport Authority Board of Commissioners Chairman Dr. Rosie L.T. Pridgen said through a press release. “The JMAA Board of Commissioners did not consent to JMAA being abolished and the creation of a new regional commission, as required by the recent policy issued by FAA. Additionally, the board vehemently opposes any transfer of the airport operating certificate.”

State Sen. Josh Harkins

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood

Backers of the proposed board change have objected to the characterization of the bill as a takeover, arguing that the regional asset should have representatives from the tri-county region it serves.

Sen. Harkins did not immediately return a message asking for comment.

  • Charles Pearce

    Please raise your hand if it’s your opinion that the present airport board provides an efficiently run airport that attracts plenty of airline competition to Jackson.