Airports Seek Economic Freedom

SAN DIEGO — During a press conference at the annual Conference & Exhibition here put on by Airports Council International-North America, chair Frank Miller, director of the San Antonio International Airport, spoke of “Operation Moses” — ACI-NA’s...


SAN DIEGO — During a press conference at the annual Conference & Exhibition here put on by Airports Council International-North America, chair Frank Miller, director of the San Antonio International Airport, spoke of “Operation Moses” — ACI-NA’s initiative to “set airports free” of regulatory overburden and historic ways of conducting business at U.S. airports.

Incoming chair Thella Bowens, CEO of the San Diego airport system, echoes the sentiment, saying that it is time to move away from the “stereotypical” governing structure of airports by cities or counties and allow them to operate more as business enterprises. “The focus needs to be on the business that we’re running everyday,” she comments.

During the conference, ACI-NA officials outlined a new four-part campaign to heighten the visibility of the role airports play in the U.S. economy. The four parts include ...

- a new policy initiative, in coordination with the American Association of Airport Executives, to bring one voice for airports to Capitol Hill;

- investment in research to support policy proposals;

- a public relations strategy to get the word out; and

- the creation of a network of civic and business leaders with whom to partner to make the role airports play higher profile locally and nationally.

ACI-NA president Greg Principato says the airport sector is once again in a defining moment, one which the airport community needs to seize.

“This defining moment is different though,” says Principato. “Let me speak plainly: The airports of this country are held back because the U.S. government regulates the financial lives of U.S. airports through a Nixon-era regulatory framework that pre-dates airline deregulation and has long since lost its relevance. And we are going to lose the international race until that changes.

“The airlines have long fought any meaningful change to this out of date regime because they want airports regulated like utilities to help keep out competition and retain control.

“And general aviation is satisfied to benefit from facilities built with PFCs [passenger facility charges] and to benefit from facilities built with money sent back to the trust fund by larger airports through the PFC turnback; but they are unwilling to join the chorus of voices calling for us to bring our airport financial framework into the 21st century.”

Further, Principato expresses skepticism about Washington’s ability to keep airport infrastructure in step with the industry’s needs. In fact, ACI-NA and its larger airport contingent have proposed pulling out of the Airport Improvement Program; instead, they seek to remove the cap on PFCs — much like the Canadian model, in which airports set the level of their Airport Improvement Fee locally, depending on local needs.

Says Principato, “So, let’s stop going, hat in hand, begging their indulgence. Let’s just tell them to get out of the way and free airports to generate their own resources, in their own communities, to build and modernize their own facilities with money that stays at the airport and is not sent to Washington. This is the way to build infrastructure; this is the way to create jobs; these are the tools those places around the world are using to beat our brains in. Want to create jobs? Want to build 21st century infrastructure?

“Set airports free, give us the tools in use all over the world, remove the Nixon-era, job killing, shackles and watch what we can do.”

FAA/system reauthorization

The airport sector continues to call for a long-term reauthorization bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration and system infrastructure. The system is operating under its 22nd continuing resolution to keep it funded, which was brought to national attention when it was essentially shut down this past summer.

Christa Fornoratto, FAA’s recently appointed associate administrator for airports, relates that the funding uncertainty has caused the agency to “dial back” numerous programs, including its development of guidelines for safety management systems (SMS) for airports. “It was not a graceful end of the fiscal year” for FAA, she says.

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