Serious Airports Require Serious Solutions

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by Kevin M. Burke
President and CEO
Airports Council International-North America

Kevin M. Burke

As the nature of business and tourism grows more global, the role of airports becomes even more important.  Airports are essential to connecting travelers with leisure destinations and businesses with new customers all around the world.  However, U.S. airports were recently scapegoated following the release of a customer service satisfaction survey of the world’s top 100 airports (“If the United States is a Serious Country, Why Can’t It Build a Serious Airport?”).

Like Forbes contributor Eamonn Fingleton, I would love to see more U.S. airports on the list of top 100 global airports, and so would airport directors all across the United States.  North American airports – some of the best and busiest in the world – are the foundation of the global air travel infrastructure system.  But Mr. Fingleton’s charge in his commentary that airport directors have no desire to undertake major improvements highlights two misguided notions.  First, there is widespread misunderstanding about how U.S. airports are funded.  Second, improving airports requires collaboration of the entire aviation community, including the airlines that use airport facilities.

First, unlike many other airports around the world, U.S. airports are publically-owned facilities operated by local governments that receive funding from a mix of sources, primarily user fees paid by travelers when they purchase their airline ticket. To further compound the issue, the U.S. Congress determines how much a local airport is allowed to collect and how the money can be spent.  The cap on the most common source of airport funding – known as the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) user fee – has not been increased since 2000.  Given the rate of inflation, the PFC’s purchasing power continues to erode every day.  Right now, the PFC is only able to buy half of what it could in 2000.  That’s why we think it’s time to increase the PFC and allow it to adjust with the rate of inflation.

Second, airports are actually communities comprised of many stakeholders, and any progress we seek must be a collaborative effort.  Most notably, the airlines have an important role to play in helping airport directors improve the competitiveness of U.S. airports in the global market.  The airlines are essential partners in the future of our aviation system, but the airlines must begin working proactively with Congress and aviation stakeholders to find commonsense solutions that modernize the way we finance and improve U.S. airports.

Airports are in the business of keeping the travelling public safe and secure, improving the travelling experience, and working with aviation stakeholders to find solutions to the challenges that keep U.S. airports off the global top 100 airports list.

Modernizing the way we finance airport improvement projects is the best way for airports to meet the needs of the 21st century traveling public. The investments we make today will drive growth into the future, because we know the economic impact of airports extends far beyond the runway.  With more than 700 million passengers and 27 million metric tons of cargo traveling in and out of the United States via air each year, airports make a tremendous contribution to U.S. GDP—more than $1.2 trillion—and employ more than 1.3 million people.

The need is clear: U.S. airports expect the number of domestic passengers alone to surpass one billion enplanements within the next 15 years, and their greatest challenge is obtaining the financial resources that will allow them to successfully tackle these infrastructure needs.  Right now, there are already more than $71 billion in infrastructure improvements needed by 2017 to meet projections in both passenger and cargo activity, according to the most recent survey by Airports Council International-North America.

We must also realize the inconveniences U.S. airport travelers experience are beyond the control of the airport.  Travelers wait too long to get through security and customs screening lines.  That’s why we continue to work with U.S. government agencies and urge them to increase efficiency with improved technology and more staff to alleviate the logjam travelers face.

We have a limited window in which to act, and I encourage air travelers to get involved.  In just under 500 days, the U.S. Congress will be required to renew – and improve – the policies that govern airport infrastructure within the United States.

It will take more than just the voices of airport officials to make the improvements travelers demand. If you agree with Mr. Fingleton that we should be serious about our airports, everyone must work together toward a serious solution.  We must modernize federal funding policies so our nation’s airports can compete on equitable financial footing with the rest of the world.  Failing to upgrade how we fund airports—our large, medium, and small hubs—will only shortchange our nation’s world-class aviation system and future economic competitiveness.