In the summer of 2022, rumors began popping up that Elon Musk was looking to build his own airport in Austin, Texas. Situated between Tesla, SpaceX, and the Boring Company, it would have been ideally placed to travel between the airport and his three companies in the center of the US state.
While the rumors were quashed by Musk himself, tweeting that it would have been “silly” due to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) being a five-minute drive from the electric car maker’s headquarters, could he have done it? After all, the billionaire has quite the knack for business acquisitions, including his recent purchase of Twitter.
But buying, repurposing, or building an airport is not something you can do on a whim. Not only does it require a substantial amount of funding, it can also be a lengthy process to secure the various approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), not to mention the local bureaucratic hurdles.
Privately-owned airports – are there many in the US?
There are thousands of private-use airports in the United States. Yet not many of the executives based in Silicon Valley and other tech-heavy hubs in the US have decided to build their own airports, perhaps due to the complexity associated with building such a structure, operating, and maintaining it.
The closest example could be the so-called Google Terminal at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC). Located in California, it is “within minutes of Silicon Valley”, at least according to Signature Flight Support, the operators of the terminal, which opened in 2015. Google’s three co-founders, namely Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt, were behind the terminal, with CNBC reporting an $82 million price tag. Notably, though, the airport is owned by a public entity – the city of San Jose – and the duo of companies (Signature Flight Support and Blue City Holdings) had to lease the land prior to construction.
Nevertheless, private airports – defined as “airport, publicly or privately owned, which is not open or available for use by the public, but may be made available to others by invitation of the owner or manager” – are plentiful across the US, with some catering to the ultra-rich. On the extreme side of things, there was the privatization related to the Town of East Hampton Airport (HTO), which the judge assigned to the case ruled against.
While the local community looked to minimize the amount of traffic, including helicopter rides from HTO to nearby beaches, others were glad the judge made the decision, including Andy Sabin, an international metal company owner, who was quoted by The New York Times as saying that his “time is extremely valuable” as he had been commuting from Manhattan, New York to a local community near the airport by helicopter and jets.
Private or VIP terminals, however, have been popular alternatives to building or buying your own infrastructure. They provide privacy in return for a steep annual fee or a one-off payment. For example, the Private Suite, found in Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), offers a “back door to your commercial aircraft, private security and Customs clearance, luxury spaces, and white-glove service before and after your flight”. And the company offers completely private suites – a reference to its own name – for those looking for “the highest levels of luxury, privacy, and comfort”.
Building your own space
Still, what if you wanted something that only you could use, your very own airport?
The FAA would be one of the first hurdles to clear. According to Part 157 of the Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which are Federal Aviation Rules (FAR), the code is applicable to anyone who is proposing to “construct, alter, activate, or deactivate a civil or joint-use (civil/ military) airport or to alter the status or use of such an airport”. While some exemptions apply, if the site is used for more than three days per week, and handles more than 10 operations per day, the would-be airport would need to be green-lit by the FAA.
Following an official notice to establish an airport, the agency would then “conduct an aeronautical study of an airport proposal and, after consultations with interested persons, as appropriate, issue a determination to the proponent and advise those concerned of the FA A determination”. The agency would dive deeper into how a newly-opened facility would impact local traffic flows, the existing infrastructure and programs of the agency, and the landscape of natural and man-made objects surrounding the proposed project.
While there are no official guidelines for private-use airports, the FAA does state that one “may follow the design standards for public-use airports as a general guideline”, which is available publicly to view on its website.
Then it would be the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the agency overseeing everything related to various transport methods within the state. The TxDOT has published policies and standards, as well as compatibility guidelines for “the establishment, and continued operation of airports and airfields throughout Texas”. One can assume that the local transportation authority, as well as the state legislature, would be interested in having a new facility built if it boosted the local economy and brought new jobs to the area.
“We found that Texas general aviation airports provide more than 48,000 jobs, with $2.5 billion in payroll and $9.3 billion in total economic output,” the TxDOT summarized in a report that the agency commissioned to measure the impact of aviation in the state.
In addition to the two transport-related agencies, “you must separately notify your state aviation agency and also comply with any local law, ordinance, or state and federal regulations” when filing to establish or re-commission an airport.
While building an airport is a huge task, maintaining it is another thing altogether. Not only do the airport’s facilities have to be up to standard, you also have to consider various factors such as a potential breakdown and an Aircraft on Ground (AOG) case. If that were to happen in an airport with no maintenance facilities, it would be very difficult to put right.
And Elon Musk does make extensive use of publicly available runways throughout the US. According to ElonJet.net, which is the extension of the Twitter bot that tracks Musk’s private jet, the aircraft was used 382 times in 2020, with the most flights from/to Hawthorne Municipal Airport (HHR). The airport, located in Los Angeles County, is also home to several facilities used by the executive’s companies, including SpaceX, Tesla, and the Boring Company – the same trio of establishments that have locations in Austin, Texas, near the potential location of the rumored airport.
While 382 flights a year probably would not justify building an airport, the richest man in the world has the money to make it a reality.