WASHINGTON — Funding, infrastructure development, changes in security and airline models— all are on the agenda for Krys Bart as she takes over the reins as chair of the American Association of Airport Executives. At the same time, a personal agenda item is to grow the association’s international scope, even to the point of exploring a ‘sister airport’ initiative similar to the Sister Cities International program. During the annual meeting of AAAE held here in June, Bart sat with AIRPORT BUSINESS to discuss issues facing the industry and her airport.
Bart serves as the executive director of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority and is the former assistant director at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport.
Following are edited excerpts of our interview ...
AIRPORT BUSINESS: It seems safe to assume that funding and reauthorization are at the top of your ‘to-do list’ for airports.
Bart: Without a doubt reauthorization will be the number one priority. It’s critical that we have AIP [Airport Improvement Program] re-established at least at the same level. It is equally critical that we increase the cap on passenger facility charges (PFCs).
Now, what would I like? I’d say blow the cap off and let each airport [determine the PFC level] based on their capital program. It’s unrealistic in the political climate in which we operate.
I think the $7.50 that we’re asking for is valid. When you put the numbers to what we have today and how long it’s been in effect, and you put in the multipliers and cost of living escalators, you come up to just about $7.50. It’s a totally reasonable number, and we will continue to work toward that number.
Congressman Oberstar today mentioned $6. Well, not too long ago Congressman Oberstar didn’t believe we need an increase. I’m very pleased to see his recognition at $6 – it’s a huge move, and I appreciate it. It’s just not far enough.
AB: The PFC debate in particular seems to be having trouble sticking with legislators. Where do you think it will end up?
Bart: Our position all along has been $7.50 with indexing; I don’t think we’ll get the indexing. While that would make everyone’s life easier, I think everyone understands that the games must continue to be played in Washington. I think we’ll end up close to the $7.50 without indexing.
I also think we’ll end up without the ability to expand the use of the PFCs, which was the FAA’s proposal. I also think we’ll end up with AIP about where it is today. If that happens, we’ll be very fortunate in today’s political environment.
In my specific situation, I need those PFCs to leverage the funding for a new terminal concourse development. They will make the difference. The cost of construction has gone up so much, and continues to go up. It’s not flattening at all.
If you can hold a bid for 60 days you’re extremely lucky; today most bids you can hold for 30 days. At least in our environment.
We’re between a rock and a hard place. We’ve got to move people through the system, and it starts the minute they drive onto the airport property. It doesn’t start on the tarmac. It starts when you move the cars through and you park the cars; and you move the people through the front door and the process and onto the Jetways. Every part of that process needs to be funded adequately enough that we can continue to move them through without a bottleneck.
AB: One positive in the funding debate in Congress is the high profile money for airport security is getting. Are you optimistic?
Bart: Yes, I’m very optimistic that we’ll end up with more security funding. The recent JFK [fuel farm] threat and others continue to point to the need for security. The question is, how are we going to use that funding? I believe that we must focus on technology.
Just at my airport alone, by the time we get the baggage handling system in and update the technology, we will be able to save a significant number of TSA jobs in the ticket area that we can now transfer to other areas of the airport. But what we won’t have to do is go to TSA and say, give us more people. What this does is save them people, and save them people who no longer have to lift bags. So we actually save them on workers comp issues, on-the-job injuries.
AB: So how is the initiative going at Reno to get in-line baggage screening in place?
Bart: I think we’re a little bit ahead of the curve because I elected early in the game to use passenger facility charges to fund my baggage project, which most airport directors were reluctant to do. This was a grave need for our airport. We have conferences that move 25,000 people out of town in one swoop.
Also, right now, we are rolling out the Registered Traveler program, with Unisys. I’m really excited about this and I have registered as a registered traveler. It was painless. We’ve had tremendous response to the program. Fifty percent of my people are business travelers. They mostly fly back through large airports. For them, they register at Reno and with the interoperability requirements of the program they can use that registration and come home with less hassle.
AB: One of the hot speakers at this year’s event has been Bill Diffenderfer, CEO of start-up airline Skybus, based in Columbus, OH. What do you think of the concept, and have you spoken with them?
Bart: I think that the success of that opportunity is still to be determined. I have a colleague who bought a $10 ticket that cost $71. So, after you buy your $10 ticket, what’s the other $61 go for? It’s not all taxes and airport fees. If you want to check your bags, you pay; if you want a blanket, you pay.
He failed to explain the rest of his business plan. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I would have appreciated learning more about it. It is in fact much more like the Ryanair model, and I have believed that we’re going to see more of that model in this country.
No, they have not talked with us. We can make those [25-minute] turns; we’re a very low-cost airport; extremely efficient. And we have a significant catchment area. We can fill those airplanes. I’m very interested in point-to-point service, so I’d love to talk with him.
AB: A hot issue with airports is the rates and charges debate occurring at LAX with some of its airlines. Have you had a chance to review it and see if it will impact your airport?
Bart: I’ve asked my legal counsel to review the opinion.
We have been extremely conservative with our rates and charges, to the point that this year we cut the final budget by an additional 12 percent. The reason for that is our security costs have tripled in the last four years. If we want our costs to the carriers to remain level, and security is going up at the rate that it is in the form of unfunded mandates by the TSA, well you can’t have it both ways. So, we have to cut other things. And we’ve cut some pretty essential things, like community newsletters that are so important to us.
AB: Any other hot buttons on your agenda as AAAE chair?
Bart: For the AAAE organization, we need to focus on leadership. Elaine [Roberts] last year put together the accreditation value task force. I’ve asked Elaine to stay on and make that a formal committee.
Then looking further into the future, we all recognize the world is indeed not flat. We (AAAE) have an incredibly successful international program. I think that in many respects the E.U. countries are ahead of us. Look at Ryanair; I believe that’s coming here. Are we ready as airport managers to understand and deal with a new airline model? With privatization? In the European model, they’re highly privatized. Then there’s ICAO and the green initiative.
It’s time to ratchet up the international program and have a sister airport program ala the Sister Cities program, whereby we involve on a more one on one basis our communities and actually do some exchanges where airport directors can trade places with other directors in another part of the world. Create a valuable learning experience, expand friendship, and get a better understanding of cultures.