The New York Air National Guard failed to pay rent to Syracuse’s Hancock Airport for five years after it received federal permission to fly Reaper drones out of the airport.
In December 2015, the guard’s 174th Attack Wing became the first in the nation allowed to operate an unmanned aircraft at a commercial airport.
The 174th was given a special federal exemption to take off and land its MQ-9 Reaper drones from the same runways used by passenger airlines and the traveling public.
But public records show the 174th Attack Wing never held up its end of the deal, running up an unpaid bill totaling almost $2 million by this September.
Neither airport officials nor the Air National Guard can provide an explanation about what happened.
Jason Terreri, the airport’s executive director, said he discovered the missing payments in 2019, soon after he started working in Syracuse.
Terreri said he tried for more than a year to negotiate a new rent agreement with the New York Air National Guard, including back payments.
But it wasn’t until Rep. John Katko and other members of Congress intervened in September with top military brass that the Air National Guard finally agreed to pay up.
Katko, R- Camillus, sent a Sept. 10 letter to the top generals at the National Guard in Washington, D.C. and New York state.
Katko wrote that the “delays in this process have long surpassed reasonable bounds, and they have had real and growing negative effects.”
“The longer this process drags on, chances grow that the airport will need to plug this gap in its finances by raising landing fees or other charges, which would in turn harm SYR’s ability to attract new carriers and routes,” the letter said.
Reps. Elise Stefanik of Northern New York and Tom Reed of Corning also signed the letter.
At about the same time, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer’s staff exchanged a series of emails with the National Guard asking for the issue to be resolved.
The Air National Guard finally signed a new joint use agreement with the airport this month, agreeing to pay $1.8 million in back due rent from October 2016 through September 2021.
The guard also agreed to a four-year rental agreement that started Oct. 1 at an annual rate that increases from $373,000 to $396,000 for the 2024-25 fiscal year.
The money pays for maintenance and repair of the airport’s runways and ramps, including snow removal. Syracuse Hancock International Airport has an annual operating budget of about $28 million.
Terreri told syracuse.com | The Post-Standard that without the steady income, the airport would have to consider a long-term increase in its landing fees, the charge airlines pay each time one of their planes touches down at the airport.
Those increased fees are often passed along to consumers in the form of higher airfares.
“We managed it so that it doesn’t impact the rates and fees to the airlines,” Terreri said, referring to the delayed rent payments. “But at some point, you’ve got to get that money back. That would be billed through the airline rates and charges. That’s why it was so important to get this wrapped up.”
Terreri said he doesn’t know why the New York Air National Guard stopped making its payments. The state pays 25% of the cost, and the federal government pays the remaining 75%.
The airport and Air National Guard agreed informally to a new rental agreement in December 2020, Terreri said. But the National Guard stalled on signing it until Katko and the other members of Congress intervened.
Eric Durr, a spokesman for the New York Air National Guard, confirmed that the military has signed a new agreement and paid its back rent to the Syracuse airport. Durr said he did not know the reasons why the payments lapsed.
The Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing is based at Hancock Field, adjacent to the civilian airport.
The military shared the same runways with commercial passenger planes at Hancock Airport for decades, pausing in 2010 when the wing transitioned to drones after flying F-16 fighter jets in Syracuse.