One On One: Kirk Shaffer

April 18, 2007
FAA's new head of its airports division, Kirk Shaffer, talks to AIRPORT BUSINESS about funding, SMS, capacity, and his focus on positioning airports for the 'NextGen' system of tomorrow.

He’s enthusiastic; that immediately comes across over the phone. He’s also busy — evidenced by several weeks of coordinating this interview. D. Kirk Shaffer enters the arena as associate administrator for airports at a time when everything is on the table. The Federal Aviation Administration is under the Capitol Hill microscope, mostly due to its own funding proposal now being considered. Comments Shaffer, in a light Texas accent, “I’ve gotten through my first round of Congressional testimony with my head still bolted onto my shoulders.” He knows airports, having spent some 17 years at Nashville and being an accredited airport executive; and he knows general aviation, as a private pilot and AOPA member. He comes across as focused, particularly when the issue is positioning airports for the ‘NextGen’ system of tomorrow.

Shaffer is a veteran of the U.S. Army and Rangers, airborne, jumpmaster, and air assault qualified, is a graduate of West Point, has a law degree from the UT-Austin and a Master of Laws degree from The Judge Advocate General’s School of the U.S. Army. He served the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority from 1986 to 2003, as executive assistant, director of properties, and general counsel.

Following are edited excerpts from our one-on-one interview with Shaffer:

AIRPORT BUSINESS: As you come into your new position in the airports division, what do you see on the horizon for U.S. airports?

Shaffer: I frankly think that I’ve come to the office at the best possible time, with our finance reform legislation now out of the box and under consideration. There are a lot of good projects going on across the country; we’ve got eight capacity projects at six different airports that are well underway.

Last year was a pretty good year with four runways being opened at major hubs around the country. With the amount of congestion that’s already in the system and the number of passengers we see coming over the horizon, we want to keep that momentum moving.

AB: How do you think your message of a new way of funding the system is being received on the Hill?

Shaffer: It’s quite obvious that there are things that Congress just plain doesn’t agree with that we’ve proposed. There are other items about which they have more questions.

The two things that everybody agrees on are a billion passengers a year coming through the system in 2014-15, and in order to handle that load one thing that we have to do is build the NextGen system. And we’ve got to start now.

AB: Are there any particular components of the proposal that seem to be sticking more than others?

Shaffer: I think there is pretty unanimous agreement that the cap on passenger facility charges has got to be raised; there’s an ongoing debate on what the new ceiling ought to be. We’ve proposed $6 dollars per segment; a couple of the industry groups want to see something in the range of $7.50.

AB: One of the non-funding hot topics among airports is the new Safety Management System initiative. Curiously, the notice of proposed rulemaking Advisory Circular [AC150/5200-37] says it “introduces the concept of a safety management system for airport operators.” It seems they’re already familiar with the concept.

Shaffer: I think they do understand the concept and long have. The bulk, but not everything, that’s required under the ICAO conventions already exist under Part 139. And that’s one of the things that we heard loud and clear from industry as we were contemplating the release of the NPRM. Obviously, people do not want to do paperwork just for the sake of doing paperwork.

What we are seeking by the NPRM is the industry’s best advice on how to proceed toward SMS, given the fact that as an ICAO signatory it is our obligation as a country to implement SMS.

We’ve made a provision for a pilot program [and] have had interest already — airports of different sizes indicating they’d like to talk further about being a pilot.

AB: One of the things on FAA’s radar screen for some time has been the issue of runway incursions. And, last August we had the accident at Lexington in which airfield construction is being looked at as a possible contributing factor. Are these some of the considerations for the SMS?

Shaffer: It’s up at the very top of my list of priorities. My first public presentation in Sarasota at the ACI Executive Council was the morning after that near-miss in Denver, where a loaded 737 came within about 100 feet of a snowplow. That brings into sharp focus that we’ve got to continue to work in that area. People do make mistakes; that doesn’t mean we can’t be continually reemphasizing through training and certification. That’s part of SMS.

You’re also aware of the end-around taxiway that’s going in at Atlanta and another coming in right behind it at DFW. Those two projects will eliminate about 2,300 runway crossings per day, all by themselves.

As the airfields at the major hubs become more complex, I think you’re going to see a lot more emphasis on common sense safety solutions like end-around taxiways.

AB: Back on the funding issue, are you planning for contingencies, should Congress fail to get a bill passed by September 30?

Shaffer: I certainly hope that I never see another continuing resolution. There is nothing that we do in this industry that is measured in three-month, or six-month, or even one-year segments. All the types of safety, security, and capacity projects that we have got to build are measured in years.

AB: Although TSA has taken over security from FAA, the airports division must still address how security changes are affecting airports. Most notable, of course, is the topic of in-line screening systems. Your thoughts?

Shaffer: One of the things in our legislative proposal would enable airports to spend my kind of money, which is how I refer to the AIP trust fund, on in-line EDS systems, even if they’re being built for exclusive use. That’s an obvious exception to the funding limitations up to this point. We recognize that those are the types of projects that need to get done on a priority basis.

I’ve also had a number of comments from airport operators around the country. Maybe they’re reconfiguring their terminal, and it’s the logical time to put the EDS system in, rather than tearing up the building twice. Yet, they have to deal with me on the terminal part of it; and then they have to deal with TSA on the EDS part of it. Those two don’t necessarily have schedules that jive.

AB: For general aviation, FAA is proposing that we rethink how we fund GA airports. Comments?

Shaffer: What we’re trying to do throughout the legislative proposal is focus our money on the airports that need it the most, particularly the non-primes that have the least ability to pay for their capital needs.

The big folks have very mature financial systems; what they need is the ability to generate more local revenue that they can leverage in the financial markets. That’s why we’ve made the PFC proposal that we have. We want to phase out the entitlements for the large and medium hubs and then redirect that money to the small commercial airports and to the non-primary airports.