A Discussion With David Plavin

He has led the Airports Council International - North America through the high growth of the 1990s, the capacity crisis, 9/11, and the ensuing debate over security. David Z. Plavin, who is retiring from his post as ACI-NA president, will officially hand...


Plavin: Take passenger screening; it’s well done; the guys are well-trained; they’re properly compensated, for a change, there aren’t nearly enough of them, yet at the same time we’ve got all of these consumer liaisons, and attorneys, and airport and airline liaisons, and federal inspectors who add no value to the security process. But the screeners, who really make a difference in terms of how people move through the system, there aren’t enough.

Meanwhile, there’s totally inadequate involvement in baggage screening technology. Totally inadequate. All of the things we’ve proposed to them over time, they can’t do it. By the time you get finished, the federal government does not ever fulfill the responsibility it arrogates for itself. Never does.

AB: Which is to say, airports will have to figure out how to pay for it?

Plavin: I think that trend is already very clear.

AB: You’ve long argued for the economic deregulation of airports. Where are we in that debate?

Plavin: We have a regulatory environment that makes it real hard for airports to do what they’re supposed to do. You have all these rules and regulations in place about how you can raise your money and what you can do with it, and how you can levy a fee, etc. At some point an airport’s going to have to say, I’ve got a business to run here, I’m going to figure out how to get out from under the federal system. It’s interesting that a lot of airports haven’t reached that conclusion already. The reason is that there’s no way that local governments can resist the bribe of federal funds. Nobody is willing to take the public relations risk at the local level, particularly at airports that have big hub carriers.

AB: So, how do you get out from under the federal umbrella if you’re an established airport, or do we look at using exclusively private money to build an airport?

Plavin: It’s looking more and more attractive. Ten years ago, I would not have said that privatization – I don’t like the word, it’s commercialization – is a good solution. These days, I’m becoming more and more convinced that it is a good solution. And for air traffic control as well.

An airport ultimately is going to have to be picking up whole bunches of stuff that the airlines can’t or won’t do anymore. It includes things like ground handling, baggage service, fueling. At some point, some smart airline operator is going to say, “Airport, if you want me to come to your airport, you provide that service and I’ll buy the incremental services I use.”

AB: FAA has been looking at modifying the grant assurances. Are you encouraged by that initiative?

Plavin: I’m encouraged by the fact that they’re looking at it and seem to have an open mind. But, a lot of the grant assurances that we find most troublesome are in statutes, not at FAA’s whim.

I’d like to see two grant assurances, period. They are, no unjust discrimination and no revenue diversion. Everything else ought to go away; there’s no value added.

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