Talking Airports

Issues on the American Association of Airport Executives' front burner include security and its funding; expanding tax-exempt status for airport-related bonds; and, the beginning of the discussion of system funding via Congressional reauthorization, due...

SEATTLE -- During this year's annual meeting of the American Association of Airport Executives, held here in May, senior executive VP Spencer Dickerson and incoming chair Lowell Pratte, A.A.E., executive director/COO of the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, sat with AIRPORT BUSINESS to discuss key issues facing airports and the aviation industry. Issues on the association's front burner include security and its funding; expanding tax-exempt status for airport-related bonds; and, the beginning of the discussion of system funding via Congressional reauthorization, due in 2007. Following is an edited transcript of that discussion.

AIRPORT BUSINESS: A topic of discussion is that the Transportation Security Administration may soon be eliminated, or restructured from its present form. Any thoughts?

Pratte: I would say that there appears to be a lot of changing out there; there's a lot of speculation.

Dickerson: It's in current law that the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] can get rid of TSA.

Pratte: We do know that the role of TSA is being redefined. That's safe to say. It appears their responsibility will be limited to aviation.

AB: Would we want to speculate that in time we'll adopt a system similar to Canada's, with private screening companies?

Pratte: No, I don't think so.

Dickerson: The appetite from our members for the opt-out program is very low; I think there are two airports that have applied - Elko [NV] and Sioux Falls [SD]. The problem is that the members aren't comfortable with the liability issues; they're uncomfortable with the accountability issues - who's responsible. Are there going to be funds? Until they get those issues addressed the appetite will not be high.

Pratte: Obviously, the funding level is insufficient and needs to be increased, not only in dollars but it needs to be sped up for the in-line systems.

AB: Are you concerned that in time the feds will just drop the responsibility for screening onto the lap of the airport industry?

Pratte: Oh yeah. I would think it follows along the lines of many other unfunded mandates. In a lot of cases you have no choice but to pass it onto the passengers or the airlines, neither one of which should be funding it. This is not the time to increase costs to the airlines.

AB: Where is Louisville Regional at regarding in-line screening?

Pratte: We're kind of a unique critter out there. We have an FAA grant for our in-line system that we kind of fell into. We had done our schematic drawings and we got a phone call from the FAA and they said, someone in the Northeast has turned back a security-related grant, and we're looking for an airport that has an interest and schematic drawings. We got a $12 million federal grant on a $15 million project. We're going to be breaking ground within the next couple of weeks.

It's 100 percent in-line. Our bag makeup area was inadequate, undersized. We're actually building a new structure for the bag makeup area and consolidating them. Where the bag makeup area used to be is where the machines will be. We're also re-arranging airlines by the amount of luggage that they screen. It was not going to be an even distribution [otherwise]; one side was going to get more use than the other. We're moving four airlines to get a 50/50 balance.

Dickerson: Back on the general EDS [explosives detection systems] issue, we've been saying for some time now that there are significant savings to TSA personnel costs by going in-line. You need fewer screeners; you have less workman's comp; you have more efficiency in terms of getting bags processed and passengers. So you end up saving the government money, making it more efficient by going 100 percent in-line.

Obviously, the money that has been appropriated is woefully inadequate. So, we're going to keep making that argument.

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