Sage Advice: Gerald FitzGerald tells airports: cooperate, support, yet defend

July 8, 2002

Sage Advice

Gerald FitzGerald tells airports: cooperate, support, yet defend

By John F. Infanger

July 2002

About FitzGerald Gerald FitzGerald is the president of PB Aviation, Inc., a subsidiary of Parsons Brinckerhoff. Before joining Parsons Brinckerhoff in 1996, FitzGerald was the director of aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He is a past chairman of AAAE, and is also a past president of the Northeast chapter of AAAE. DALLAS - Among the opening speakers at this year's AAAE convention of airport managers was Gerald P. FitzGerald, A.A.E., president of PB Aviation, Inc., and former chair of the association. His overriding message to airports: Position yourself for the future. He discussed this and other issues with AIRPORT BUSINESS. Here's an edited transcript.

AIRPORT BUSINESS: A big issue with airports regarding the Transportation Security Administra-tion and new security is who is going to pay for all this. You have some definite thoughts on this.
FitzGerald:Don't assume we're going to pay for it. You're going to come onto our airport and order us to do things, and we might have to tell you we're not doing it unless you pay for it. They might say that you have to do it because it's the government telling you to do it. Well, you've got to leave the question open, so that at some point in the future you can come back and say, listen we did it because we were ordered to, and now we're going to our Congressman for funding. You need to be careful in not assuming at the outset that you have agreed to pay for everything. That's the word of caution.
Congress is allocating monies to the TSA to pay for "some" of this work. No one can define the "some."
What happens to the lost revenue? You shut down a food and beverage store to put in a machine. And the rent is $10 a square foot. But you've had a business in there that's been paying $50 a square foot. What do you do with that?
There are a lot of issues.
I believe the strategy is, you want to be seen as a partner. You want to be supporting the program, but you want to make sure that you've taken the necessary steps to protect the financial side of it.
AB: Everybody seems to agree that the December 31 deadline won't be met. So, as an airport manager, what can I do?
FitzGerald: As an airport manager, you're practicing due diligence here, saying 'Let's be clear about the payment, and let's be clear of our informing you that based upon our knowledge that we have today, you're not going to make it.'
Now, the law doesn't say what the penalty is if you don't make the date, it just says that you're supposed to make the date. So, maybe on January 3rd local airports get notices from the federal government that they're not in compliance.
If you're the airport manager in City X, the news reporter walks in and says, 'You didn't make your deadline.' Well, you can show him the letter you sent to the TSA back at mid-year that told them, based upon what I know we're not making the deadline. I want everyone to know that I was not asleep here; I knew what was going on. We did our best to cooperate.
The reason that's important is that you need to be supportive, but in a way that protects your interests in the future.
And I don't think you can use the fact that you're not going to make it as an excuse not to do anything. You can't do that either.
AB: You also refer to the IBM mainframe analogy, and how technology could quickly change the discussion at airports.
FitzGerald: It's the technology wild card. The comparison is, look what happened over here [with mainframes]. We shouldn't be surprised if the same thing happens in our airports. We're all carrying around in our pockets what used to be done by a machine as big as a room.
You shouldn't be surprised if in three or four years you have a machine as big as a lunch box that does what these huge EDS machines do. Be cautious about ripping up the whole guts of your baggage system.
AB: Airport managers appear to be experiencing a high level of frustration regarding direction from TSA.
FitzGerald: That's true. But in fairness to TSA, they don't understand the nature of what they're dealing with yet. They also have the other forms of transportation they're dealing with as well.
They're talking about EDS machines and trying to hire thousands of security check workers in the same process. Forget about all the policy questions, just to get the people on board is a huge task.
They're not giving airports direction because, frankly, they don't have a direction themselves.
AB: But they do seem to be coming in with a heavy hand, and maybe they need to.
FitzGerald: You have people leading the agency who are experienced Washington professionals, and I think there's a lack of partnership.
There's a greater need for partnership, and it's tough to try and tell the Washington bureaucracy that you need to have a greater level of partnership. In the final analysis, the guy that's going to be dragged in front of the Congress is not going to be the airport director from San Francisco.
AB: Does the potential exist that they could make it so onerous that the public rejects aviation entirely?
FitzGerald: Aviation infrastructure is second only to the Internet in terms of world commerce. The second most important global infrastructure is air transportation, and you just can't shut it down. It's too important to the global economy to take a local view of it.
I think we're going to find that out with TSA. The final word is not coming from the TSA; the final word is coming from the people and their representatives.