Kevin Burke: ACI-NA's Agent of Change

April 30, 2014
Airports Council International-North America’s new president hopes to bring folks together to help the industry change with the times

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 in 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 more than 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 new 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've come to ACI-NA with no experience in airports or aviation other than being a frequent flyer 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 introduce myself in my new role and quickly start the conversation on the issues facing airports.

As a road warrior who has seen many different airports in many countries, how have you seen airports change over the years?

I've seen a much more pronounced focus on improving the passenger experience, particularly when it comes to terminal facilities upgrades and improvements. But you don't get there without funding.

What needs to happen in order ensure airports have the funding they need for their capital improvement projects?

If we don’t get an increase in the PFC and also continued funding for 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 architectural firms to asphalt pavement producers--will ultimately benefit from the economic impact made by such large-scale projects.

Vice President Joe Biden did us a big favor when he compared LaGuardia Airport to a Third World country’s airport.I’ve been in Third World countries all over the world, and in many places their airports are far better than ours. We need to convince Congress that all of the funds for transportation are important, whether it’s for ports, railways, roads or airports. We have to seriously begin the process of putting our money where our mouth is and start to either repair or rebuild these structures. The longer we wait, the worse it is going to get.

How high does the PFC need to go in order to address some of these needs?

The PFC was last increased in 2000, up to its current maximumof $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 capital projects that need to be done. If the PFC is increased, an airport is more attractive to Wall Street when seeking municipal bonds needed 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.

The Obama Administration’s 2015 budget proposal includes raising PFCs but decreasing AIPs. How do you feel about that?

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 obviously going to lobby strongly for  AIP but there could be creative ways to maximize the availability of those funds to airports that would need them most.

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

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

Recent reports note that ACI and AAAE are working more closely together than ever before.  Will there come a time when these organizations combine as one?

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 else our message would be heard. The instructions from both our boards have been to work closely on making certain that 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 joint 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’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 to those who I had not met yet. One of thethemes 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. And, I’ll tell you this, 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.  We have to find a way to come to agreement on that, but the first step is talking.

What types of technologies, procedures, and people 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 are 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 a long-sought goal and new goals entirely.