The state of Michigan has just bought Romeo Airport in Macomb County, heretofore privately owned, as part of its "airport preservation" program. A Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) spokesman says the airport is "strategically located and cost efficient."

A nonaviatorsay, a real estate agentmight wonder why something "strategically located and cost efficient" needs to become a ward of the state. It's a good question.

MDOT's preservation program targets general aviation airports, which serve freight, charter and

business airplanes, not commercial passenger airlines. Since 1993, the state has purchased two such airports. About half of Michigan's general aviation airports are privately owned.

But this is a "tough row to hoe," says Milton Berz, owner of the Berz-Macomb Airport, one of the Macomb's two other general aviation airports. My main competition is with government-sponsored airports," which are effectively subsidized.

Mr. Berz favors the state's program, given the pressures on private airports to sell their land for housing subdivisions or industrial parks.

But the state shouldn't oppose housing and industry. Consider the "worst" case: Private airports are slowly bought out by private developers. If so, the number of airports will shrinkin turn nudging demand at the remaining private airports and making them more viable. If, on the other hand, the state continues to buy airports, private operation will become even less feasible.

Of course, many private pilots, squeezed by regulatory burdens that make flying artificially expensive, applaud airport preservation. But this subsidy comes at the expense of general taxpayers, who must make up the difference as private land and business is bought by the state and removed from the tax rolls. Pilots would do better to attack the government's chokehold on the industry than to make terms and get put on the reservation.

After all, government airports and air traffic control are slowly tying even America's passenger airline industry in knots. Governor John Engler, rather than outbidding private developers and expanding taxpayer liabilities, should encourage airport privatization. State government has trouble enough without doing to airports what it's done to roads.

Reprinted with permission of The Detroit News.