Kevin Burke: ACI-NA's Agent of Change

As the new president and CEO of Airports Council International-North America, Kevin Burke fields more than a few questions these days about his aviation background. He’s learned to respond to them with a smile and quip that while he does not have his pilot’s license he is a crack study at flight simulation.

He explains that when his children were growing up, his busy work and home life prevented him from investing the time to get a pilot’s license as much as he wanted one. His fall back was to play a flight simulator game on his children’s computer.

“I practiced takeoffs and landings in airports all over the country flying a multitude of different airplanes,” he says. “When I tell airport directors this, they laugh because a lot of them do the same thing.”

He’s become the epitome of a road warrior, having traveled through countless airports around the world in his 30 years in government relations. And he says he’s learned firsthand that there is truth in the expression: When you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport. “They’re all unique but they also have some very similar challenges,” he says. “And ACI-NA exists to help them with those challenges.”

Airport Business recently caught up with Kevin Burke, between visits to ACI-NA member airports and trips to Capitol Hill, to talk about his goals for his new role heading the association known as the Voice of Airports.


How did your background with the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) prepare you for your role at ACI-NA?

At the AAFA, I was the president and CEO. When I took that job in 2001, I came from the food industry, where I had been a chief lobbyist for 16 years. The AAFA hired me because I had no background in the apparel and footwear industry and they wanted somebody with “clear eyes” to help rebuild their trade association. Similarly I come to ACI-NA with no experience in airports or aviation other than being a frequent flier and frequent user of airports here and around the world. But I know how to run a trade association. And while the issues before me are complicated and large, every member of Congress has an airport, or many airports, in their states and in their districts. This fact makes it easy to introducemyself in my new role and quickly start the conversation on the issues facing airports.


How do we ensure airports have funding for needed capital improvement projects?

If we don’t get an increase in the PFC and also continued funding for the AIP for smaller airports, then we’re going to have a tremendous infrastructure problem. We already have a big problem with infrastructure. ACI-NA’s most recent Capital Needs Study identified approximately $71 billion dollars in projects needed by the year 2017 at airports around the country just to keep pace with expected increases in passenger and cargo traffic. A restored PFC purchasing power would go a long way toward alleviating that project backlog.

Increasing the PFC not only benefits the airport, it also benefits the local economy surrounding the airport. For example, if you’re talking about funds to build a runway, renovate an existing terminal or construct a brand new terminal, the many businesses that play an important part—from architecture firms to asphalt pavement producers—will ultimately benefit from the economic impact of such large-scale projects.


How high does the PFC need to go to address these needs?

The PFC was last increased in 2000, up to its current maximum of $4.50. Most of the larger airports express strong interest in increasing the PFC up to $8. That is to keep pace with inflation, to get us to a point where that money can go toward needed capital projects. If the PFC is increased, an airport is more attractive to Wall Street when seeking municipal bonds for these projects. The PFC is collateral that can help them get bonds to invest in these projects. The lower PFC has been harmful to airports trying to get funds for construction. My job is to get over 218 members of Congress to agree that increasing the PFC is not only good for airports; it’s good for the economy as a whole.


How do you feel about the 2015 budget proposal raising PFCs but decreasing AIPs?

We were disappointed with that. But I think there’s a way we can fix that. A large airport may want to increase the PFC, but it doesn’t need AIP. This frees up AIP support for the smaller airports that don’t predominantly rely on PFCs for funding capital improvements. We’re going to lobby for AIP but there could be creative ways to maximize the availability of these funds to the airports that would need them the most.


How is ACI-NA working with airports to help expand non-aeronautical revenues?

While my primary focus currently is achieving a PFC increase, part of my job also is convincing those who would contribute to non-aeronautical revenue that airports are an excellent place to sell their goods and services. Health clinics, spas, yoga rooms, restaurants, and shops selling clothing, footwear or apparel make up an important part of non-aeronautical revenue sources that airports seek to increase. One thing I stress to airport directors is that it’s OK for you to think of your airport as a business because you are a business, and attracting and growing concessions programs plays a significant part.


How are ACI and AAAE working together?

One of the things that was stressed during my interview is the need to work with Todd Hauptli and his crew at AAAE because in order for us to get our major issues heard on the Hill, we not only have to walk in step, we have to talk with the same cadence, the same words, in the same rhythm, or our issues won’t be heard. The instructions from both our boards has been to work closely to make certain the 2015 FAA Reauthorization Bill contains language that benefits airports. That’s what we’ve been doing. Todd and I meet once a month, and we’re making rounds on the Hill together. That helps portray the industry to lawmakers as a much stronger entity as we move forward with our policy objectives.

How will you expand ACI-NA’s work with the airlines?

When I first came to this job, I thought it was crazy that we hadn’t been talking to the airlines. In my first two weeks here, I called every member of our board and introduced myself. One of the themes I got from those conversations was, “Can you find a way to open up a dialogue with the airlines?” I believe that’s essential. Win, lose or draw, I want to be able to go before our membership and say that we tried every opportunity to work with our friends at the airlines. We agree with the airlines on 95 percent of the issues. We work very closely with the Airlines For America (A4A) team on issues that affect, positively or negatively, airports and airlines. The stumbling block, though, historically has been how to fund necessary airport capital improvement and infrastructure.


What must be in place to speed up the Customs screening process?

You can have the best airport in the world but if you can’t get through it quickly it doesn’t matter. The process in the customs hall has to be faster. We were pleased to see that the President’s budget proposal has a provision for 2,000 additional U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and equipment procurement. The main factor for these lengthy custom screening times in several airports has been the lack of appropriate resources for CBP so, in our view, this is a step in the right direction. We’ve also been a big proponent in technology and making screening time more efficient and passenger friendly. Last year we saw the introduction of automated passport control kiosks, which are now available in several airports in the United States and Canada.


How will you be an agent of change for the association?

I’ve read everything Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, has ever written. He is a brilliant businessman who made very difficult choices yet drove his company to record profitability during his CEO tenure. In terms of our legislative and policy objectives, the airport industry is in an environment where what we’ve done in the past isn’t necessarily working anymore. My definition for what makes an agent of change is someone who recognizes when we need to try a different approach to achieve long-sought goals and new goals entirely.