WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress took the month of August off, after both Houses saw committees pass reauthorization bills for FAA and the U.S. aviation system. A few days prior, Airports Council International-North America and the American Association of Airport Executives held their annual Summer Legislative Issues Conference — dominated by funding discussions and a half-day parade of House legislators. Following the
session, ACI-NA President Greg Principato sat with AIRPORT BUSINESS for an interview on reauthorization. Here are edited excerpts ...
AIRPORT BUSINESS: What are your thoughts on the air traffic control modernization discussion that has been central to committees in both Houses?
Principato: I always joke that like with the weather, people talk about it but can’t do anything about it. We’ve been talking about it a long time.
With the [Balliles] commission that I worked on in 1993, that was the first and main recommendation of the commission: to modernize and fix air traffic control and the governance of it. That commission had some ideas; Al Gore’s reinvent government had some similar ideas; Norm Mineta’s commission in 1997 had some ideas.
Whether the specific idea is the right one or not, the fact is we really do need to figure out what modernization means and do it — fairly quickly.
AB: When you listen to the NextGen discussion, it’s not just about air traffic control. It’s environmental issues; it’s capacity on the ground issues; it’s separation in the sky issues.
Principato: I think those other things have not been talked about enough over time. It’s always about who pays. And it’s often about what the structure is; control.
When I went down to Atlanta, [aviation GM] Ben DeCosta took me up to the control tower to look out and see the five parallel runways. It’s pretty efficient. Look at Chicago and the configuration of the runways; when they finish the modernization it will be a much more efficient use of what they have on the ground. In Denver, they can do things in weather they couldn’t do before.
All that’s undervalued.
AB: Regarding infrastructure needs, ACI-NA this spring updated its analysis of investments needed at airports. When you go to Congress to testify, do you think that sticks, particularly in light of the fact that your numbers differ from FAA’s?
Principato: I think it does, but in combination with other stuff. It’s easy enough to explain why FAA’s NPIAS [National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems] numbers are different than our number. They’re measuring a different pot of things. But it isn’t just the number — it’s construction cost inflation; it’s price and service competition. The new runway in Atlanta meant that even in less than ideal weather you can do 30 more arrivals per hour. The system benefits from that, and the small airport community benefits.
We spend a lot of time with folks on the Hill, with FAA, with GAO, going over those studies. We let them poke and prod at it. What comes out is a number that’s rigorous and passes the laugh test. It’s not just something we threw up against the wall.
AB: An interesting approach taken by ACI-NA when you distributed your study to the media was you did it through your airport members, and got them to notify the local media for a teleconference press briefing.
Principato: It’s really a lesson I learned from state government, where 21 years ago in Virginia we passed a huge transportation package and one of the things that was done was the governor went all over the state and stood on unpaved roads in southern Virginia and said, ‘This thing will be paved.’
That makes it real in people’s minds. It had over 80 percent public approval.
The lesson you take from it is use everything at your disposal to tell the story, and make it real for people.