Airports at a Crossroad

At ACI-NA, the focus is on funding the system and security, and modernizing ATC.


In late September, airports from across the U.S. and Canada convened for the annual Conference & Exhibition of the Airports Council International-North America. Top of the mind concerns at this year's meeting were loosening restraints on how airports operate financially, the funding debate just now beginning to brew in Washington, how to fund and expedite the installation of security screening systems, and the need to modernize the U.S. air traffic control system. In addition, FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey opened the show with a call for system funding reformation, as well as an emphasis on airfield safety in light of the August airline crash at Lexington, KY. One other hot topic: the decision to split up the joint lobbying effort with the American Association of Airport Executives.

Regarding the funding reauthorization debate, outgoing chairman Steve Grossman, director of aviation for Oakland International Airport, related in a pre-show press briefing that the battle which is just now beginning among industry groups and Congress, is "probably the most important one in a generation."

ACI-NA president Greg Principato comments, "Compromise is not common in Washington these days, but we live in a time with issues that demand it."

FAA HOT BUTTONS

The FAA Administrator says there's a "real resurgence" going on in aviation, led by advances in technology. At the same time, she says that medium and large hub airports have recovered financially since 9/11, while smaller airports remain heavily dependent upon the federal government for support.

On funding, Blakey says the Administration is still putting together its proposal on how to best fund the U.S. air transportation system in the future, particularly the ATC modernization. "Bottom line: We need a stable revenue stream," she says. "The need to modernize is upon us."

Blakey also called on airports to focus heavily on airfield safety, particularly during periods of construction.

FUNDING THE SYSTEM

Blakey reiterated her call of recent times for new funding mechanisms, cautioning that the current system is inadequate to meet future needs. Air Transport Association President James May echoes that message and, in Reno, he again put forth ATA's plan for modernizing the air traffic control system. ATA seeks to get ATC out from under congressional purview with an oversight body that would have funding authority and mechanisms and increased industry input, particularly from the airlines. ATA also seeks a new user fee system for business aviation.

Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, was on hand to dispute ATA claims that business aviation doesn't pay its fair share for its use of the system. He again called for a continuation of the current funding formula which charges general aviation a fuel excise tax, although he does leave the door open for a possible increase in the fuel tax.

Regarding ATC modernization, Bolen maintains that the U.S. is "well on our way" to achieving that goal, led by the enactment of reduced aircraft separation minimums last year. "Where we are today is starting from a very large base," he says.

Bolen and May, however, are in agreement that the general fund of the federal government needs to continue to contribute significant monies to fund the system.

ATC MODERNIZATION

Despite Bolen's assertions, others here express serious concerns that a revolution needs to occur in how air traffic control is managed in the U.S. NAV CANADA president/CEO John W. Crichton was on hand to relate the successes Canada has had in its ATC modernization efforts. Implemented in 1996, NAV CANADA has reduced the ATC workforce from 6,300 employees under Transport Canada to some 5,300 today. "If you want to control costs in our business, you have to control the number of employees," he says.

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