FAA is clarifying its policy on non-aeronautical storage at airports to emphasize that airport hangars should be used for aeronautical purposes, but also allows that limited "small incidental" non-aeronautical storage is permissible.

The notice of proposed policy, printed in the July 22 Federal Register, comes after FAA had sent a letter to the city of Glendale, Arizona, on the need to ensure that hangars are used for aeronautical purposes. That letter was widely viewed in the airport community as broad policy banning all non-aeronautical uses.

In the proposed policy, FAA notes that its inspections, along with Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits, have found that some hangars "are routinely used to store non-aeronautical items such as vehicles and large household items."

In some cases, this storage is preventing aeronautical use of the hangars, the agency says. "Many airports have a waiting list for hangar space, and a tenant’s use of a hangar for non-aeronautical purposes prevents aircraft owners from obtaining access to hangar storage on the airport," the agency says. But the agency also concedes that small incidental items could be stored and have no effect on the utility of a hangar.

The routine non-aeronautical use is occurring even though federal grant agreements require that airports make themselves available for aviation use, FAA notes. Grant assurance requirements also prohibit airports "from causing or permitting any activity that would interfere with use of airport property for airport purposes," the agency notes.

While some areas can be designated for non-aviation use with FAA approval, aeronautical facilities, such as hangars, must be used for aviation purposes.

The GAO in the past has twice audited FAA and airports on this issue, faulting the agency’s oversight over airport use. GAO found several cases in which federally-funded airport property was being used for non-aeronautical purposes. Following those audits, FAA began inspecting 18 airports a year. During those inspections, the agency found hangars housing only items such as automobiles, boats, and large recreational vehicles. In other cases, the agency found hangars sharing space with motorcycles, furniture, tools and other items. Some tenants were operating non-aviation businesses out of the hangar.

In Glendale, FAA found similar instances and in 2011 ordered the city to submit a "corrective action plan." FAA subsequently submitted a letter further outlining aeronautical versus non-aeronautical uses. That letter, the agency said, "became widely circulated in the airport community and has been interpreted by some as general policy."

But the agency clarifies that "Insofar as that letter suggested that all non-aeronautical items stored in a hangar would constitute a violation of the grant assurances, it applied to a specific situation at a specific airport and does not represent general agency policy."

The agency adds that it will not consider an airport in violation as long as it provides "reasonable access" to aeronautical users. "In cases where excess hangar capacity is unused because of low aviation demand, a sponsor can request FAA approval for interim non-aeronautical use of a hangar until that hangar is needed again for an aeronautical purpose," the agency says. But FAA adds that aeronautical purposes must take priority, even if the airport can rent it out at a higher rate for non-aeronautical purposes.

FAA also clarified its stance on building aircraft or other aeronautical products in hangars. "The FAA has not found all stages of the building process to be aeronautical for purposes of hangar use," the agency says. Most of the construction process can be conducted off airport, the agency says. "Only when the various components are assembled into a final functioning aircraft is access to the airfield necessary," FAA adds.

FAA backed an airport sponsor (the city of Concord, North Carolina) that banned construction of a homebuilt aircraft in an airport T-hangar. The sponsor had cited policy on the use of hangars for aeronautical activity. The city had prohibited "final stages" of aircraft construction and maintenance and repair, offering an alternate location for the aircraft.

While FAA said this prohibition did not violate grant assurance agreements, the agency also noted that final assembly "leading to the completion of the aircraft to the point where it can be taxied," will be considered an aeronautical use.