It’s time to clear the hot air about how we poll Americans on how we fund our transportation infrastructure:
This week, ACI-NA’s “Beyond the Runway” coalition took to Capitol Hill for a briefing and reception targeted to a broad cross section of aviation industry stakeholders and hill staffers. Committed and prospective coalition members filled the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee room in Rayburn House Office Building for a brief presentation on the headway we’re making toward modernizing how we finance our nation’s airports and aviation infrastructure.
The briefing, conducted by ACI-NA’s Government Affairs team, was an opportunity for airports to educate coalition members and Hill staffers on what airports are hoping to gain in the 2015 FAA Reauthorization. Immediately following, ACI-NA hosted a networking reception that allowed attendees to discuss what steps to take next in advocating for airports and modernizing how we finance these important capital improvement projects.
When I joined ACI-NA a few months ago, I was immediately propelled into the office’s efforts to assure a successful FAA Reauthorization, and the event brought to light the labor we are putting into the coalition to make sure that airports’ issues are represented.
With just over 200 days until the deadline for the next Reauthorization, the airport industry’s work is far from over. But I can assure you that ACI-NA is taking action on behalf of your airport. As we like to say here in the Washington office, we are maintaining a steady drumbeat in advocating for airport priorities in 2015.
Communications and Marketing Coordinator
“Why don’t more airports use radar to prevent dangerous bird strikes?” blared the headline from a segment that aired on yesterday’s broadcast of Today (February 19). Although the reporter in the piece never provided an answer to this question, he did charge ahead in pursuit of an agenda that implied U.S. airports aren’t committed to safety. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The report ignored the work that thousands of airport professionals do to mitigate wildlife hazards every day and the millions of dollars that they invest every year on fencing, habitat management, wildlife harassment, and wildlife monitoring activities, all of which have been effective in reducing wildlife hazards at our nation’s airports. The report also sidestepped any mention of significant wildlife hazard management requirements that the FAA has on the books. These include conducting wildlife hazard assessments and developing, implementing, and regularly updating comprehensive wildlife hazard management plans. These plans and the resources airports dedicate to implementing them provide concrete evidence of how seriously airports take wildlife hazards.
Although avian radar systems can be components of such plans, many airports have found that other hazard mitigations provide greater safety benefits and address their specific wildlife management challenges most effectively. These decisions have been made by highly trained professionals at our airports—including qualified wildlife biologists—based on data, detailed assessment of wildlife hazards, and understandings of their local airports’ circumstances. (That’s certainly the engineer in me talking, which I’m sure doesn’t make for a good soundbite.)
Airport professionals are called upon to make decisions about the technologies, processes, procedures, and capital investments that will produce the best safety outcomes given available resources, be those people, money, or time. Yet at the same time, airports have been unnecessarily constrained in terms of how they can finance these solutions. Specifically, we’ve seen Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding decrease and the purchasing power of its companion funding mechanism, the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) user fee, decline by half over time even as new, promising safety technologies like avian radar have emerged.
The Today reporter did acknowledge that avian radar is expensive at the conclusion of his segment, but his insinuation that individual airports just don’t want to foot the bill at the expense of safety is a simplistic and dangerous misrepresentation. Introducing new legislation to require the use of avian radar at all U.S. airports would only create a yet another unfunded mandate for airports. Instead, the smarter solution would be for Congress to implement common-sense reforms to airport funding mechanisms that ensure they both provide sustainable and secure support to maintain our current airport system and invest in new and emerging technologies like avian radar.
Ultimately, though, why not focus on all the important elements that make up managing wildlife hazards at airports instead of making ill-informed assumptions? I’ve got some ideas, but am guessing they don’t make for good TV.
Vice President, Safety and Regulatory Affairs
As do virtually all State of Union addresses, President Obama’s speech Tuesday evening spanned a wide range of themes encompassing both foreign and domestic policies, priorities, and prerogatives. But if there was unifying thread throughout, it was that 15 years into the 21st century—and six years on from the largest global recession since the Great Depression—the United States is thriving.
One particular aspect that I was very pleased to hear the president mention at several key points was infrastructure: “21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure — modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet.” I couldn’t agree more, and it’s easy to see that airports absolutely fit into this conversation. As we said in our countdown infographic on Tuesday, “Roads, rail, water, and air are what move American opportunity.” Comprehensively investing in all our modes of transportation, and especially modernizing how we fund this infrastructure, strengthens the backbone of our economy and our global reputation as a country where products, services, and ideas flourish unobstructed.
But there is one element to the president’s vision regarding infrastructure that, unfortunately, could hamper progress in modernizing our airports. It relates to an important source of funding for airport capital improvement projects: municipal bonds.
Although not explicitly mentioned in Tuesday’s State of the Union, President Obama has proposed to permit private entities to issue public municipal bonds. Airports long have been open to idea of increasing opportunities for public-private partnerships—or P3s—as one approach to getting serious about tackling necessary capital improvement projects.
On the other hand, though, President Obama also has called for significantly increasing the cost of municipal bonds for public entities—such as airports—by proposing that tax deductions for municipal bond interest be capped for certain investors. In short, this would mean that bond investors would then demand a higher rate of return from the bond issuer. And this, in turn, would make the cost of the infrastructure projects that municipal bonds help fund only more expensive.
The U.S. in 2015 arguably is on far better footing economically than we’ve been in recent years, so it’s incongruous to me that we’d now want to create barriers to investment. Instead we should be fostering easier market access and local control for airports to finance the new construction and upgrades they’ll need to keep pace with future demand and expectations. Removing the tax-deduction cap on municipal bonds from his upcoming proposed budget—as well as also removing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) burden from private activity bonds, a form of municipal bonds—would be an exceptionally strong signal from President Obama that he is as optimistic about the future of our airports as I am.
Kevin M. Burke
President and CEO
Like other industries, the airport community will be closely watching President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address tonight. And while we won’t know for certain what will be in the speech until the president delivers it, we expect our nation’s transportation infrastructure to be a major topic in tonight’s televised and webcast national update from Capitol Hill.
With so many key transportation items on tap for this year, including the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, the president would be amiss if he didn’t share his vision for modernizing our aging transportation infrastructure.
As such, we hope the president takes this primetime opportunity to outline his plan to work with Congress on achieving real success for America’s aviation system. But regardless of what we hear tonight, ACI-NA and our partners aren’t skipping a beat when it comes to keeping the drumbeat going for airport priorities on Capitol Hill. With the buzzword being that both the House and Senate are seeking to craft a “transformative” FAA reauthorization, our entire commercial aviation system is in play, and absolutely including airports.
To follow ACI-NA’s response in real time this evening, head to twitter.com/airportscouncil beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Senior Vice President, Government and Political Affairs