ACI-NA Perspective

ACI-NA perspective

Issues facing airports in 2000 and beyond

BY John F. Infanger, editorial director

November / December 1999

LAS VEGAS — Jeffrey P. Fegan serves as executive director of one of the world's largest airports — Dallas/Ft. Worth International — in terms of passenger movements, cargo, and economic impact. He came into the airport management ranks sort of backwards, serving as an airport consultant prior to getting into administration of a particular facility. It allowed him to touch different airports and gain perspective from different types of managers, he will tell you.

In October, Fegan was named to his new position as chairman of the Airports Council International - North America during the group's annual meeting here. ACI-NA is the regional division of Airports Council International, based in Geneva, and serves the interests of primary airports and their sponsors in the U.S. and Canada.

During the Las Vegas meeting, Fegan sat down with AIRPORT BUSINESS to discuss his and the association's positions on various issues of interest to the industry. Here's an edited transcript of that session.

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On key issues he would like ACI-NA to focus on during his time as chairman in 2000 ...
There are a couple of issues that we would like to go after as aggressively as we have gone after the legislative issues. First and foremost are the environmental issues and some of the difficulties airports are having now and will have in the future as relates to, for example, general conformity on air quality issues. It's not just the big cities but a lot of the medium-sized cities that are starting to be affected by that and, over time, more and more cities will have the same air quality issues to face.

The other thing that's both interesting and disturbing is the increasing level of delays being experienced in the airport system. There's a lot of people pointing fingers at each other, but it's rather profound to think that at D/FW, for example, our delays have increased by 93 percent. And we're in a drought situation, so I don't think we can attribute it all to weather. I think there are some other systematic problems that need to be addressed. It's going to be an issue of capacity on the ground as well as air traffic control.

On specific environmental concerns ...
What we need to be concerned about is the potential of airport development projects now moving forward as a result of trying to meet the general conformity requirements that the FAA is now imposing on airports. The general conformity basically involves ensuring that the airport is within the guidelines of the state implementation plan. Historically, some state implementation plans have not been allocating appropriate pollutant levels that will allow an airport to operate or function within those levels and grow in the future. You have to have realistic baseline numbers that airports can live within, and still have some room to grow if we're going to accommodate this near doubling of traffic expected over the next 10-15 years.

The other part of it, I think, is that airports really do need to be much more aggressive and take on whatever we have control over — those things like our vehicle selection, and to encourage our tenants like the airlines to go to alternative fuel or electric tugs. You can make a pretty dramatic increase in improvement of air quality by making those kind of selections.

The one other part of it is, who is responsible for the emissions that come from aircraft? We are not in the business of controlling airport operations; in fact, we are in the business of promoting the growth of aircraft operations.

On where ATC will be in five years ...
I think we're going to continue to struggle with capacity issues five years from now. Changes are particularly slow when it comes to FAA, whether it be procedural or purchase of equipment. I do think, though, that Congress and the general public are starting to become more aware of it and, once you identify a problem and you're able to create the resources to address that problem, you can see some significant progress.

There's a whole array of issues out there. Do we have enough runway capacity? Well there are a few airports that are able to expand their capacity by adding new runways, but there are a few that simply can't. At JFK, they have no feasible alternative for expanding their runway, so they're going to have to squeeze as much capacity as they can through procedural and technology improvements.

On whether or not the governmental process required to bring about ATC system change can get it accomplished ...
I think changing the process has to be a big part of it. Changing the attitudes, the mindsets, maybe even the structure need to be looked at. Obviously, safety is of paramount importance. It is a very slow-moving boat when it comes to making dramatic change to have the impact to add capacity at airports.

At our place, we've seen a very aggressive FAA in terms of redesigning the airspace and creating procedures for multiple approaches, but I think especially on the technology side things need to accelerate a bit more than they do today.

On whether or not ATC needs to be taken out of FAA, perhaps even privatized ...
All options need to be looked at to determine the best way to create a safe, more efficient system in the future.

On the ongoing debate over airport competition ...
You know, I sit around these kind of meetings and know most of the directors at major airports out there, and every one of these guys is probably more entrepreneurial than they've ever been as an industry and as a profession.

In terms of the dominant airlines controlling the airports, I have never experienced it. I've never had anybody suggest I shouldn't be doing air service development or marketing the airport for additional airlines to provide competition.

One of the things that's happening, hopefully, with the current legislative change for funding is the ability of airports to have access to passenger facility charges to add gates so that you don't have to get airlines' approval, per se. I think PFCs are probably the most liberating opportunity for airports to create additional space to have something to market.

On airline opposition to PFCs ...
I guess that's their public position, but I've also seen at so many major airports, in such large development programs, PFCs are an extremely powerful source of revenue to leverage to build these terminals, to add runway and taxiway capacity, without the airlines having to take on a new chunk of liability in terms of additional debt. I think more and more airlines are starting to see the value of PFCs. In fact, some of the most vocal opponents of PFCs are the greatest benefactors — even the most vocal opponent, our friends at Southwest, who have benefitted tremendously. It's a very efficient way of financing major capital expenditures.