Top level bureaucrats don't always engender a level of respect that might on the surface seem warranted. Enter Catherine 'Kate' Lang, the FAA's acting Associate Administrator for Airports (in place of the recently retired Woodie Woodward). In recent times, Lang has served as a wind of reason blowing through industry meetings, offering practical analyses and suggestions on what's working and what's not when it comes to airport planning and funding. During a recent phone interview with AIRPORT BUSINESS, she emphasized that, overall, airports are doing OK, and infrastructure is being built. A funding battle looms; but then, it may be time to rethink all this stuff anyway, she says.
Once the Administration names a replacement for Woodward, also popular among airports, Lang returns to her role as the No. 2 person in the airports division. “I'm very happy in that role,” she says. Lang joined FAA in 1992, moving from the Chicago Department of Aviation, where she was the assistant commissioner.
Significantly, Lang has played an integral role in the dissemination of Airport Improvement Program funds during an era when record sums have been appropriated.
Following is an edited transcript of our interview with Lang ...
AIRPORT BUSINESS: Your primary, stated purpose for this discussion was to talk about the successes since 9/11.
Lang: We've had a lot of individual successes this year with four major runways being commissioned. A lot of good things happening.
It occurs to me [it's helpful to look back] at the summer of 2000, when headlines were all about impending gridlock. I think that summer did a lot to make us do some real thinking. On the one hand, it did make us think differently on how we do planning and environmental work.
There's been an awful lot of activity to streamline the environmental process. As we continue to catalog successes in getting environmentals done and projects under construction, I think we really are seeing a material difference in how we approach environmental projects at large hub airports.
Another major call that came out of the summer of 2000 was, do we really understand what we need to do where, to meet system capacity? I think it's also changed the way we evaluate airports and the way in which we think about national planning.
Right after that summer was when we did the first benchmarks. I give the Administrator an awful lot of credit; she had us thinking even more differently. Historically, FAA has looked at airports on an individual basis; occasionally on a regional basis; but beyond cataloging capital requirements, we really didn't look at the broad trends.
AB: It's interesting to hear you say that, since the theory has always been that FAA looks at it as a system.
Lang: We did the FACT study, inspired by Blakey. She said, it's great that we're focused on the OEP [Operational Evolution Plan] airports, but how do we know those are the right airports? How do we know those are where the markets that airlines want to serve? How do we know that's where people will live? Do we have all the airports in the right places?
[Note: The Future Airport Capacity Task (FACT) study analyzed system capacity by benchmarking 35 U.S. airports.]
It prompted us to take a more systemic look - where people were going over a ten- or 20-year timeline. When we issued that report in 2004, it did get some communities that weren't doing things kind of on the ball. We're going to update that study later this year.
AB: Of course, central to recent developments is the amount of money coming into the system.
Lang: When I started managing the [AIP] program, it was at $1.6 billion; next thing you know it's at 3.1, 3.4, 3.5, - we're at $3.55 [billion] now. And PFCs went from $3 to $4.50. So, there's been a lot of money injected into the system. It's a fair question to ask, what did we get for it?
Since the summer of 2000, 12 new runways at the busiest airports in United States have opened. That's more than 20 miles of new runway pavement, with the potential to accommodate 1.6 million more annual operations. That's a fantastic increase to system throughput.
What's also encouraging is that the pipeline is really robust. Through 2008, we have six airfield projects; four new runways; one runway extension; and one airfield reconfiguration - notably O'Hare. These are projects that are under construction; the environmental's done; the planning's done. The agency is very focused on ensuring that as those runways come on line, all the things we need to provide for them to be commissioned are ready to go.
There are 32 proposed new airports in the environmental process - 28 GA and four non-primary commercial service in Alaska.
If you think about what the outlook was five or six years ago, it's a remarkable amount of system capacity that has been added to the system. It's a real testimony to local and state governments. It's very tough stuff to build a runway; certainly not something for the faint of heart.
AB: Is there anything specific you can point to that's helped get communities more prepared when it comes to meeting airport infrastructure needs?
Lang: When we issued the FACT study, we were concerned that some of the city fathers would feel like they'd just gotten punched in the nose. In fact, a lot of them responded with, 'This is great; how do I get one of those?' For FAA to stand up and say, you need additional capacity because you will have demand coming your way helped fortify the conviction of folks to take it on.
AB: Yet, with a major funding debate looming, how do you plan for the long term?
Lang: We are going to be updating the FACT study; it will go out to 2025. We also have the JPDO looking at next generation [air traffic control]. I think we're going to continue to see exciting analyses of what we need to do to meet future demand.
A fair question is, how are we going to pay for this? Reauthorization is at the front of everybody's mind; there's a lot of discussion on where do we go with the expiration of the aviation taxes.
I will give you a couple of things that we're thinking about. One is the NPIAS [National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems]; we're about to reissue it. It really is our judgement of what are the capital requirements that are warranted for the system. Two years ago, for the first time I can remember, the NPIAS went down - 15 percent.
The new NPIAS about to come out will show that capital requirements are rebounding. They haven't recovered all 15 percent. It looks like they're going up about 4 percent. I suspect that's a conservative number. We are seeing a Katrina effect.
Another factor that's very important is, we would say that airports are financially better off today than they were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. As a group, airports are doing better.
Vision 100 was extremely worried about airport financial health and did a number of things because of that concern. Like, for example, changing the local match from 90/10 to 95/5; that meant more than $100 million less a year was available for grants - $500 million over five years.
While airports are doing better, the pressure on airports to enhance their self-sustainability is greater. There is a lot of pressure on airports to reduce their reliance on the backing of airlines. They have to figure out a way to carry their debt on something other than assuming the airlines will assume the risk.
And, how will these investments serve the enduring and the emerging requirements of the system?
Will that serve us as we worry about things like VLJs, the emerging air taxi market, changes in fractional ownership?
AB: Are you concerned that with the change to 95/5, perhaps some projects aren't getting done?
Lang: It's an awful lot of money. I'm into building stuff; $100 million a year would have built a lot of stuff. I am not certain how much of that stuff wouldn't have been built if the federal match would have stayed 90/10. In light of the financial data I see today, nothing suggests to me that these communities are going to turn down money because they can't come up with 10 percent.
It's been fascinating. Some of the states that used to match 5 percent now said you're on your own for the other five. Can we afford another half a billion building nothing?