By Kevin M. Burke and Gov. Ed Rendell
Modernizing America’s aviation network is about what happens in the sky and on the ground. While more needs to be done to modernize our air traffic navigation system, we can’t forget that every trip through the skies starts and ends in an airport. So what happens on the ground is critical to meeting the demands of increasing air travel.
In 2015, more than 800 million passengers traveled through U.S. airports. Over the next 20 years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates enplanements will grow to more than a billion. U.S. airports must ensure their facilities are able to accommodate increased passenger and cargo demand.
As Congress continues debating reauthorization of the FAA, current legislation pending before the U.S. Senate is a missed opportunity to expand the transformation of our nation’s airports into modern and efficient hubs of activity.
Through our work at Airports Council International – North America and Building America’s Future, we know America’s airports are more than gateways to travel. Airports are engines of economic growth for communities across the country. More than 1.2 million workers are employed at U.S. airports, and airport operations support nearly 10 million additional jobs, creating an annual payroll of $360 billion.
There are also countless industries that benefit from a robust aviation system. Next time you visit an airport, look around and you will see a buzz of activity – aircraft operations, retail, food and beverage, construction, baggage handling, and more – that provides a lifeline between the airport and the community it supports.
But with more than $75 billion in annual capital needs through 2019, airports across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to undertake new projects, maintain existing facilities, and spur much needed competition amongst the airlines.
For example, Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers needs to design a new runway and expand its main entrance road to accommodate increasing passenger traffic. Denver International Airport needs to expand its concourses and improve its baggage systems to meet airline demands. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport needs new jetways and gates. But funding options for these types of desperately needed projects are severely limited, and we know the federal government is not keen on increasing federal funding levels these days.
Fort Myers, Denver, and Minneapolis-St. Paul are far from alone. The average U.S. airport is 40 years old, and every airport across the country faces its own unique challenge. As airport infrastructure continues to age, U.S. airports must take measures to ensure existing runways and terminal buildings are in good repair to prevent safety concerns and service disruptions as air travel demand increases.
Modernizing the locally set Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) user fee as part of FAA reauthorization would be an excellent step. Updating the PFC to allow more local control would make airports less reliant on increasingly scarce federal funds and protect a greater share of airport infrastructure revenue from severe disruptions caused by sequestration, government shutdowns, and repeated short-term FAA reauthorization extensions.
Support for the PFC continues to grow in Washington. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, an ardent supporter of transportation user fees, recently said that modernizing the PFC will allow airports to “re-access the debt market and be less reliant on federal tax-supported grants.” Additionally, the CEI highlighted the great benefit of the PFC in helping “promote airline competition and lower airfares.”
While we are disappointed that the Senate Commerce Committee chose not to include a PFC modernization in its bill, there is still opportunity to do so on the Senate floor. We urge such an addition. It is important step to bringing our airports up to 21st century standards and meeting modern travelers’ expectations.
Investing in America’s infrastructure whether it be airports, roads, or bridges is not a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats know that for the United States to remain economically competitive, our infrastructure must be strong and resilient. And because every flight in the United States begins and ends at an airport, it is essential that airport priorities are included in the Senate’s plan for FAA Reauthorization in order to help airport's ability to serve their customers.
Burke is President and CEO of Airports Council International – North America and Rendell is a Co-Chair of Building America’s Future and the former Pennsylvania Governor.