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Apr 21, 2017

US Airports Pressed by Unprecedented Infrastructure Needs, Turning to Washington for Help

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It seems like a figure too large to comprehend, but according to a recent report, airports across the country today have infrastructure needs carrying a total dollar worth of just under $100 billion.

“We’re in a position where the question is: if we don’t do the work now, when will we do it?” asks Kevin Burke, the president and chief executive officer of the Airports Council International—North America.

Releasing the most recent findings, looking at the total national airport picture, the ACI-NA pegged the exact current infrastructure price tag at $99.9 billion, a figure that Burke says should alarm policymakers.

“We did this same survey about two years ago, and then it came out to be around $70 billion,” says Burke. “Which means that just a short two years later we have a 37 percent increase.”

“And the way things are going, if we don’t address this problem, that number is only naturally going to be higher than $100 billion,” continues Burke.

This most recent survey found that the problems of an aging and crumbling infrastructure don’t discriminate: airports of all sizes are in trouble.

Large hub airports currently account for around $60.4 billion of the nation’s airport infrastructure needs. Those same airports handle nearly 73 percent of all enplanements in the U.S.

Medium hub airports are up next with infrastructure needs at the $11.7 billion mark. Those same facilities today handle around 15 percent of all enplanements.

But even the small hub airports, accounting for 8.4 percent of all enplanements, have been hit. Combined, they are today looking at infrastructure needs valued at $8.5 billion.

The story regionally is equally daunting. According to ACI-NA statistics, Texas, with 26 commercial airports, has infrastructure needs pegged at $9.3 billion, while Arizona, with 11 commercial airports, has $2.1 billion in infrastructure needs.   

Not far behind is Colorado, with 14 commercial airports and $1 billion in infrastructure needs; followed by New Mexico, which has 5 commercial airports, and $400 million in current infrastructure needs.

Those not in the industry may wonder how it has all come to this. For Burke, the answer is easy: “Our airports were built in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s,” he says. “These are not airports that are falling down, but they certainly need to be replaced or drastically upgraded.”

“The youngest large commercial airport terminal is Denver International and they’re twenty-one years old.”

“Essentially, we have really great 20th century airports, but we don’t have any real great 21st century airports,” adds Burke.

But while the nation’s airports are getting old and remain static, the number of people who use such facilities continues to grow.

According to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the total number of airport passengers nationally is now at around 850 million a year—up from 77 million in 2009. The ten largest airports in the country annually handle anywhere from 20,000 passengers a year to just under 50,000.

A ready solution to the mounting infrastructure costs, says Burke, could easily be found in eliminating the federal cap on what is called the Passenger Facility Charge.

“The common thread is that a lot of what gets built in airports is funded through the PFC,” says Burke.

The PFC is currently capped at $4.50 per segment, the same level it has been at since 2000.

Raising the level, asserts Andrew Quilan, the co-founder of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, in an article published by the site InsideSources.com, “would spur investment in aviation and greatly improve the quality of air travel within the United States.”

President Obama previously tried to raise the cap, only to see that proposal fail in Congress.

Now a bill in House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is also calling for upping the cap, while at the same time reducing funding for Airport Improvement Program grants from $3.3 billion annually to $2.9 billion.

The idea, said Dallas Fort Worth International Airport Chief Executive Officer Sean Donohue, would mean that users of airports, rather than all taxpayers, would fund future airport facility improvements.

Burke says that uncapping the PFC will allow “each airport and each community to determine what they need to be able to build out their airport.”

But even if that cap is lifted, adds Burke, “airports are not going to all of a sudden run hog wild with all kinds of new projects.”

That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration still has ultimate control over what airport projects will be approved.

 

By Garry Boulard

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