By Mario C. Diaz, Director of Aviation
Thanks to the efforts of a great many people, we have averted an extended FAA shutdown through the peak of the construction season. During the two-week limited FAA operations, Houston faced the immediate cessation of work on our new TRACON facility and an installation project for runway status lights — both key projects. Once completed, our new TRACON will control air traffic over 16,000 square miles of airspace, handling 900,000 individual aircraft operations. The state-of-the-art equipment will facilitate implementation of NextGen technologies, further securing Houston’s position as one of the world’s safest, secure and accessible airport destinations. The new facility is the product of a decade of planning by both the FAA and Congress, and it was very troubling to see the construction site go silent as the shutdown occurred. It’s in the public’s interest for airport infrastructure projects to move forward.
In addition to concerns over ongoing projects and the impact on workers, the considerable uncertainty regarding restoration of full FAA operations gave us grave concerns about the potential impact of a long term shutdown, (including about damage to the aviation trust fund). We are relieved and appreciate the recent action for the extension bill. I can’t thank our Congressional delegation enough for their stellar support and their efforts to help bring this about, and I’m especially proud and appreciative of Houston Mayor, Annise Parker, for her impressive leadership to secure a resolution.
However, the events that led to the shutdown and what they portend for the future are especially troubling. Knowing that the contentious issues related to long term FAA authorization remain, we are very concerned that in just a few weeks we may be back to the situation we faced a few weeks ago. It’s essential that we all keep up communications with our respective Congressional delegations and urge them to make passage of a long term reauthorization bill a top priority when they return to Washington after Labor Day – after all, there will be only a few days remaining before the recently passed extension expires. Given the advance planning requirements that are a fact of life at airports, we cannot go on functioning efficiently and effectively when funding availability is always in crisis mode. I hope that all airports will join me and ACI-NA in helping to push through a long term bill when Congress returns.
Achieving that would give us some short term relief and some breathing room. It’s clear a new world order has arrived. We’d better start dealing with the current and future realities. Most importantly, airports need to start taking greater charge of their own financial destinies, in recognition that whatever happens in Congress, we cannot assume that adequate federal funding will be available. The writing is on the wall; if anyone needed further evidence of that, the recent downgrade of the United States’ credit provides certain proof.
Where do we go from here? How do we achieve true self-sustainability? It won’t happen overnight. We need to start planning for it now. It’s essential that everyone understands and appreciates the critical role that airports play in the local, regional, national and international economies.
In Houston, our three airports are responsible for nearly 231,000 jobs and have an economic impact on our region of $27 billion. But how often do you hear a (non-airport) person talk about how much they appreciate the opportunities that airports create? Overall, airlines have done a better job than have airports in helping people understand the value they create – want to visit the Caribbean for some R&R? XYZ airline will take you there. Want that package there overnight? XYZ express carrier will have it delivered in the morning. But those trips could not take place without the extraordinary facilities that airports (and our terrific employees) provide – and those facilities also create jobs, help send construction workers home with paychecks, support small businesses, and send ripples of economic benefits locally, regionally, nationally and globally.
In Houston, our airports are truly a gateway to the world for passengers, shippers and the global business marketplace – from just IAH alone nearly 175 international and domestic destinations are reachable nonstop – the options available are extraordinary. Our metropolitan area is so large that if it were a state it would rank as the nation’s 19th largest. Houston’s region’s GDP is larger than that of 85 percent of the world’s countries. It’s in significant part because we are a dynamic global gateway that Houston and Texas are leading the nation’s economic recovery. As the fastest growing metro area, we are blessed with the nation’s largest employment gains; the highest retail employment growth since the recession; more manufacturing jobs; and the highest level of entrepreneurial activity. We’re located at the heart of a state that ranks #1 in multiple economic indicators, including most new jobs, the largest increase in population, and the strongest economy. Our airports are essential players in enabling the global reach of our community and in these strong economic indicators.
And, large or small, to a degree every airport in the country also serves as that essential gateway to the world. It’s time we spread that message and enhanced the overall understanding of just how critical airports are to the health and growth of our communities and our economies. Houston is here to support all other gateways as the largest hub for the largest airline in the world and our nation’s airports depend on each other to connect the traveling public.
America needs to start looking differently at the degree of allowing airports to control their own funding. Airports have long labored under burdensome restrictions that hinder our ability to achieve true financial self-sufficiency. We all understand the need for certain restrictions, and of course safety must always be paramount. If future federal funding is severely limited; we need to have the tools to have more local control over our own affairs. We need to preserve the aviation trust fund and ensure that it is used effectively. We need to revisit the fundamentals of our relationships with the federal government. We need to forge new partnerships with our airline colleagues and our investors and contractors. We need to restructure and enhance our options on airport privatization, and create a new vision that fits into and benefits from our new world order. Our nation is in crisis and our airports have a key role to play in jump-starting the recovery. For that we’ll need an effective Congress, a robust FAA, long term reauthorization, and plenty of creativity on the part of airports.
Let’s all work hard in the coming weeks to get long term reauthorization addressed effectively and quickly, and let’s also start devoting our energies to a new airport vision for the future.