Capacity, and Other Issues

May 8, 2001


Airport execs see ATC, unwieldy approval processes as top challenges

By John Boyce, Contributing Editor

May 2001

Space and time appear to be occupying the thoughts of a sizable segment of the population of airport executives in the U.S. nowadays. Space, in terms of landside and airside capacity; and time, in terms of the amount needed for projects designed to provide the space to alleviate capacity problems.

Larry D. Cox, A.A.E., president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County (TN) Airport Authority and the current chairman of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), summarizes the overall concerns of many airport managers and directors by saying, "(It’s) this constant worry about having adequate capacity within the air traffic control system, and within the system of airports to accommodate the growth that we have seen over the past decade and anticipate will continue over the next couple of decades.
"It’s a daunting task and, unfortunately, we’re facing situations where the processes and the organizations are not up to the task or don’t appear to be up to the task of getting us where we need to be without having an air transportation system that is going to be approaching gridlock in the next few years. That’s the thing that concerns me the most."
While Cox and many of his colleagues are concerned about funding for their projects, even when there is no concern about money, there is an overriding frustration with the slow-moving processes, particularly those associated with environmental controls, that executives have to contend with.
"We’ve spent ten years (trying to get a runway constructed)," says Mark VanLoh, A.A.E., commissioner at Cleveland-Hopkins International Air-port, "and we’re going to finally be turning dirt probably next month (April) on a new runway. It’s something that Cleveland has needed forever. We’re so constrained here that Conti-nental is actually canceling flights to some cities. They just don’t have the capacity anymore.
"But this environmental process is a nightmare. We go through all these state agencies, we go through EPA, then we go through national. There’s wetlands, noise; it’s just incredible."
Overcapacity at curbside is a major issue for Timothy Campbell, A.A.E., executive director of Salt Lake City International Airport, particularly in light of the city hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics next February. The airport has a terminal program underway, but it won’t be completed for another eight to ten years.
"One of the aspects of being a (Delta) hub airport," Campbell says, "is that you get a peaking of arrivals and departures, which compounds the problems at curbside. You get these large crushes of people coming and going all in a short period of time, which test the curbside of even the best designed airport. Our airport, quite frankly, is over capacity (landside) right now. It is designed for half as many passengers as we’re handling today. That is giving us some challenges and we spend a fair amount of time trying to make some modifications and improvements to the curbside that, hopefully, will make things better."

Overcoming Frustration
The frustration from delay increases when the permitting process itself can endanger an entire project. Such is the case at Southwest Florida International Airport in Ft. Myers. Robert M. Ball, A.A.E., executive director, says that the population explosion in the area and the resulting increase in air traffic has made it imperative that a new terminal be built. But while he has the funding, he waits interminably for the permits and worries that the wait might cost him the funding.
"It has been fully funded," Ball says. "We’ve received a letter of intent from FAA, which has designated it as a capacity-enhancing project. We’ve received a large amount of state funding... We’ve renegotiated new airline leases. Now we’re going through the process of getting permits.
"It just seems that the environmental permitting process you go through takes forever. We’re in a situation that if we don’t get these permits secured by this December we’re facing a situation to where it’s going to impact our schedule and our budget, and possibly we could start losing our federal funding. That, of course, makes our bondholders nervous, and the airlines. We have debt, and they (airlines) don’t want to pay rent on facilities they don’t have."
Although he was specifically talking about runway development, Cox in Memphis could have been, once again, summarizing his colleagues’s concerns about any airport development when he says, "We need to streamline the process — not to run over environmental rules and regulations and laws, but to streamline it so that you can come to an outcome; either yes, you can build it, or no, you can’t build it. Otherwise it’s just slow death."
For Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena (CA) Airport, that slow death has taken more than 20 years. Through a wildly complicated process of permitting, lawsuits, and political maneuvering, the airport has been prevented from building a terminal safety project that was identified as necessary in 1980. Victor Gill, PR director at Burbank, describes the process as "various sinkholes and swamps that we’re all wading in."
A clearly frustrated Dios Marrero, executive director at Burbank, says "The thing foremost in my mind is how do we maintain and improve aviation infrastructure in this country with all the impediments that are placed in front of every airport official...
"It’s local impediments, political impediments. I would say the lack of initiative (on politicians’ parts) to act as a catalyst for projects. We’ve got a terminal safety project we’ve been trying to do for 20 years. At the end of the day, everybody needs airports and our citizens don’t want them near them for noise purposes but they definitely want them near for convenience, so it’s a real problem.’’
Marrero goes on to explain that local politicians promote economic growth, which in turn gives rise to greater demand for commercial air service. But the politicians don’t acknowledge their roles in increasing that demand and try to distance themselves from — indeed oppose — projects intended to help provide the necessary services.

Thomas P. Nolan, A.A.E., director of aviation at Youngstown-Warren (OH) Regional Airport, has a different take on the issue of capacity. His airport is under-used and he thinks it can be part of the solution of the overall problem of capacity. Nolan says the Western Reserve Port Authority has virtually rebuilt his commercial service, non-hub primary airport, making it a viable alternative to nearby airports in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Akron, and Erie.
"How are we going to best use those small airports which have met the challenge of building the infrastructure?" Nolan asks. "How can they best be utilized in the overall plan? We get sick and tired of hearing capacity problems when we’re sitting here looking out our windows and seeing lots of capacity. That’s one of the most frustrating issues. Maybe it’s time I try to take it to a level in Washington, where we can assemble a panel of worthy small airports that can play that role" of helping alleviate capacity problems.
Nolan knows the world won’t come to him, but he’s hoping AIR-21 will provide funding for marketing to help him carry his airport’s message to the world. "So the biggest issue for me," he says, "is how best to get exposure for this airport and put it on the world market. It has such huge possibilities.
"Now that we’ve built our product, we need some help. We need some money, I mean serious money, not peanuts ... to go out and get this great message out. We’ve got something to sell. Too many small airports are trying to go into areas that are unrealistic, but we’ve got something of value.
"We’re in the middle of a huge population center — the fourth largest in the country — we’ve got infrastructure now, and we’re poised to get involved even in international traffic. We want to take it to that level. That’s the biggest thing on my mind — how AIR-21 marketing is going to pan out."

The ATC Issue
Capacity, of course, comprises many factors, not least of which is air traffic control. Airport executives as a group are concerned about the outdated system. As Brent Kitchen, A.A.E., airports director at Tulsa International Airport and its reliever, Richard L. Jones Airport, puts it, "Air traffic control modernization is behind schedule."
Cox at Memphis is more blunt in his assessment. He says it is "in desperate need of a fix. That, in my opinion, is a system that has no business being in government. It’s a 24-hour, seven day a week high-tech business that needs to be run like a high-tech business, and it should be funded by the users, should be responsible to the users.
"There should be federal oversight for safety and so forth, which is a legitimate federal role, but we just keep wallowing around in the government process of trying to operate the ATC. It’s an abysmal failure despite some of the best people trying to do a great job, but they’re just stuck in a system that won’t work."

Capacity, infrastructure development, and other issues affecting the air transportation system in the U.S. concern C.M. (Mike) Armour, A.A.E., director of Asheville (NC) Regional Airport. But the issue foremost on his mind and the one he deals with constantly is the lack of competitive air service at his airport.
"For a city our size," Armour says, "we actually have pretty good service because we have service to Charlotte, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Raleigh, and we’re about to pick up service to Newark. The problem is that we have severe leakage from the standpoint of people driving to other airports.
"We feel the only way we can positively impact fares is to provide additional competition and give the consumer additional choices."
Armour says, in the past air carriers have agreed to treat Asheville as co-terminus with Greenville-Spartan-burg (SC), a larger market, thereby reducing fares to Asheville. However, it was a tenuous handshake arrangement and, he goes on, some of the carriers have adopted the attitude that, ’We charge what we do because we can.’
"That gave us the impetus to move forward with our air service development by trying to secure additional competition," says Armour.


Other issues occupying executives include mergers that could affect the volume of traffic into any given airport, airline labor relations, and air quality regulations not yet clearly outlined by EPA for airports. But Randall Walker, director at Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport, has been thinking long and hard about the issue of priority use of his airport.

As a public airport he can’t refuse access to anybody, which means a mixture of commercial and general aviation traffic possibly landing in the same peak times.
"We have a real concern about the type of traffic that comes in," Walker says. "You have a twin-engine with four passengers and a jet with 150 passengers. The prop job, since it’s slow, eats up two landing slots for a jet, so when you’re in your peak times one twin-engine prop is eating up two jets slots, which is 300 passengers. Those are the kinds of capacity issues people are going to have to address.
"We still have 30 percent of our operations GA. Right now the system doesn’t allow you to do anything to drive the non-productive uses into the non-peak times, so all this talk about peak pricing is very important because somehow you need to ration the system to what makes most sense for the entire system. First-come, first-served basis doesn’t make a lot of sense."
Walker says his authority is "spending a lot of money" upgrading and improving two reliever airports just to the north and south of the city to entice general aviation aircraft away from McCarran, particularly at peak times. "You can come," he says, rhetorically, "just don’t come when we don’t have any space."