He’s enthusiastic; that immediately comes across over the phone. He’s also busy — evidenced by several weeks of coordinating this interview. D. Kirk Shaffer enters the arena as associate administrator for airports at a time when everything is on the table. The Federal Aviation Administration is under the Capitol Hill microscope, mostly due to its own funding proposal now being considered. Comments Shaffer, in a light Texas accent, “I’ve gotten through my first round of Congressional testimony with my head still bolted onto my shoulders.” He knows airports, having spent some 17 years at Nashville and being an accredited airport executive; and he knows general aviation, as a private pilot and AOPA member. He comes across as focused, particularly when the issue is positioning airports for the ‘NextGen’ system of tomorrow.
Shaffer is a veteran of the U.S. Army and Rangers, airborne, jumpmaster, and air assault qualified, is a graduate of West Point, has a law degree from the UT-Austin and a Master of Laws degree from The Judge Advocate General’s School of the U.S. Army. He served the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority from 1986 to 2003, as executive assistant, director of properties, and general counsel.
Following are edited excerpts from our one-on-one interview with Shaffer:
AIRPORT BUSINESS: As you come into your new position in the airports division, what do you see on the horizon for U.S. airports?
Shaffer: I frankly think that I’ve come to the office at the best possible time, with our finance reform legislation now out of the box and under consideration. There are a lot of good projects going on across the country; we’ve got eight capacity projects at six different airports that are well underway.
Last year was a pretty good year with four runways being opened at major hubs around the country. With the amount of congestion that’s already in the system and the number of passengers we see coming over the horizon, we want to keep that momentum moving.
AB: How do you think your message of a new way of funding the system is being received on the Hill?
Shaffer: It’s quite obvious that there are things that Congress just plain doesn’t agree with that we’ve proposed. There are other items about which they have more questions.
The two things that everybody agrees on are a billion passengers a year coming through the system in 2014-15, and in order to handle that load one thing that we have to do is build the NextGen system. And we’ve got to start now.
AB: Are there any particular components of the proposal that seem to be sticking more than others?
Shaffer: I think there is pretty unanimous agreement that the cap on passenger facility charges has got to be raised; there’s an ongoing debate on what the new ceiling ought to be. We’ve proposed $6 dollars per segment; a couple of the industry groups want to see something in the range of $7.50.
AB: One of the non-funding hot topics among airports is the new Safety Management System initiative. Curiously, the notice of proposed rulemaking Advisory Circular [AC150/5200-37] says it “introduces the concept of a safety management system for airport operators.” It seems they’re already familiar with the concept.
Shaffer: I think they do understand the concept and long have. The bulk, but not everything, that’s required under the ICAO conventions already exist under Part 139. And that’s one of the things that we heard loud and clear from industry as we were contemplating the release of the NPRM. Obviously, people do not want to do paperwork just for the sake of doing paperwork.
What we are seeking by the NPRM is the industry’s best advice on how to proceed toward SMS, given the fact that as an ICAO signatory it is our obligation as a country to implement SMS.
We’ve made a provision for a pilot program [and] have had interest already — airports of different sizes indicating they’d like to talk further about being a pilot.