FAA expresses strong concerns over airport board bill, warns of a financial impact, MNAA fires back

The Federal Aviation Administration said House bill 1176 would change the board’s governance structure, which could impact federal grants and other obligations. The Nashville airport authority in response, argued otherwise.

By: - April 3, 2023 12:07 pm
Southwest Air planes parked at Nashville International Airport. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Southwest Air planes parked at Nashville International Airport. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Federal Aviation Administration expressed strong concerns over state lawmakers’ attempt to change the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority board and warned it could impact its financial future. 

The FAA raised these concerns in a letter sent last week to Nashville Airport CEO Douglas Kreulen. 

“The FAA has not yet been contacted by any state representatives regarding the proposed legislation,” the FAA letter said. “Please be advised that any state or local governmental body proposing to draft legislation that would impact airport sponsorship or governance should consult the FAA well before taking any action.

“The FAA has questions regarding the potential impact of the transfer of the appointment authority of all board members from the Mayor of the local community to State-appointed officials, including the impact of such a transfer on the airport’s Federal obligations, operations and existing financial arrangements.”

The letter is in response to Tennessee Republican attempts to vacate Nashville’s airport board and replace it with an eight-member board, six of whom would be appointed by state leaders. 

Democrats and city leaders oppose the change because it removes local control over the seven-member board, currently appointed by Nashville’s mayor and approved by the Metro Council. 

State lawmakers and the Nashville airport authority have argued that a change in appointments over the airport board doesn’t change its governance structure.

“MNAA has conducted significant legal review of the legislation and MNAA has concluded that, as currently written, the bills do not change the ownership, sponsorship, governance, or operations that would trigger the FAA’s policy,” Kreulen said in letter responding to the FAA.

“You’ve indicated that it’s your understanding that if these bills were to become law, they ‘could be viewed as a substantial change impacting the governance of the Airport Authority.’ However, beyond saying that it ‘could’ have that impact, you provide no explanation as to how it “could” happen.”

City leaders have argued the newly-structured board would shift the airport’s hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and debt to the state. 

In response to the letter, Metro Nashville Legal Director Wally Dietz said he hoped the letter would slow down the state’s bill to replace the airport board before Metro has a “serious problem on our hands.”

“For weeks, advocates for the airport authority bill have cited the advice of lawyers that the bill did not involve the FAA,” Dietz said in a statement. “The FAA letter on Friday is a giant yellow caution flag to all of us.”

But, the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office contends the board change doesn’t impact who owns the assets or the debt. 

“The state would not have responsibility for assuming or backstopping any of those debts, past, present or future, no matter the composition of the board,” said John Dunn, spokesperson for the Comptroller.

The move to take over the airport authority comes as state lawmakers have ramped up their retaliation against Nashville for blocking the 2024 Republican National Convention. 

Republican lawmakers passed a bill to cut the Metro Council from 40 to 20 members and are debating bills to remove Nashville oversight of Lower Broadway bars and take over more seats on the board overseeing publicly-funded sports venues. 

The airport authority legislation, House bill 1176, is sponsored by Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, and Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta.

The bill passed the Senate last week with only Republican votes and is scheduled for a hearing in its final House Committee on Tuesday. 

FAA letter

FAA Letter to BNA - March 2023

Nashville airport authority’s response

2023 04 02 FAA Letter - with attachments (1)

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Adam Friedman
Adam Friedman

Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 615-249-8509.