Some Closing Thoughts

I haven’t written a post since it was announced I will be leaving ACI-NA at the end of June.  But I didn’t want to leave without some sort of written goodbye.

This will be a short post as I wrote a final column for Centerlines (which has just come out and which I know all of you read!) and I don’t want to repeat myself.

Making my point during a panel on April 27 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Making my point during a panel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my eight years as President of ACI-NA. For most of those years I have written this blog, more than 300 posts in all, I believe.  I know I’ve enjoyed doing it, and, from what has been heard from so many of you, most of those 300 have been pretty well received.  Thank you for reading these several years.

The blog has been part of an effort by ACI-NA to better communicate the airport message.  We made a key strategic session years ago to undergird all we do with an effort to change the way airports are seen and talked about, especially by the press and policy makers.  We needed to level the playing field a bit with the airlines, not to defeat them, but to have a more balanced outcome, hopefully working together with them.  Without this work, any advocacy effort would be doomed to fail.  I believe the strategy we developed many years ago is working, and will continue to work.

Similarly, years ago, in 2010, we identified the U.S. federal debt and deficit crisis as an opportunity to get our Passenger Facility Charge message across. We contacted Simpson and Bowles before most people had ever heard of them.

On the Canadian side, airports have moved beyond the old-style rent debate and are making headway in convincing the government to look at the need for a better policy framework to support a vibrant air transportation system.

On security, safety, facilitation, environment and many other issues we have re-ordered the playing field, changed the debate and made progress.  The entire industry should be proud of this because we all did it together.

So, as I leave I wish all of you nothing but the best.  This is not only a great industry, but an important one.  I can’t even imagine a 21st century economy without airports.  The work you do is taken for granted even by people who depend so deeply on you.

My final word is a thank you to the staff team at ACI-NA.  I have loved working with them and I can’t think of an industry represented by any association in Washington whose staff is more passionate and dedicated.  They made coming to work every day something I very much looked forward to these past eight years.

Passenger Use Fees, Not Blank Checks Building Tomorrow’s Airports Around the World

Over the past several months, I have heard a lot of talk from airline and aviation labor leaders about the support other countries contribute to the success of their national airlines.  These arguments are used to buttress the campaign to enact a National “Airline” Policy.  My counter-argument (we are pushing for a National “Aviation” Policy) has been that these nations and their airlines succeed in the global transport network not only because they have policies that encourage a growing role for aviation, but because – and largely because – they have invested in aviation infrastructure.  Anyone who has ever traveled to, or through, Singapore, Hong Kong, Incheon, Doha, Abu Dhabi or Dubai can see that very plainly.  (See related Centerlines Blog from the Dubai presentation at our Customer Service Seminar last week in Florida.)

 “Aviation’s importance as a catalyst for growth is well-understood in the Middle East and particularly in the Gulf region, where airports rise ahead of the demand curve, not behind it.”   IATA's Tony Tyler

“Aviation’s importance as a catalyst for growth is well-understood in the Middle East and particularly in the Gulf region, where airports rise ahead of the demand curve, not behind it.”

– IATA’s Tony Tyler


I have pointed this out continually, and have also pointed out that these places – and others – use a passenger user fee similar to the American PFC or Canadian AIF to generate revenue.  It is not some sheikh or government just writing a check and printing money as some might have you believe.

This is done because leaders (government and business) in those places are looking to the future.  They are not building for yesterday’s traffic or yesterday’s customer or yesterday’s economy.  They are building for tomorrow.  They are shaping their future.

While the governmental systems in most of these places are not ones I would want to emulate, I do applaud their vision, and especially applaud their recognition that modern airport infrastructure, airfield and landside, is critical.

Because I run the airport trade association my words are dismissed by some.  But listen to the words of one of the world’s great aviation leaders:  “Aviation’s importance as a catalyst for growth is well-understood in the Middle East and particularly in the Gulf region, where airports rise ahead of the demand curve, not behind it.”

Who said this?  Some airport director?  Some airport association leader?  No, it was Tony Tyler, Director General and CEO of IATA, the International Air Transport Association — the worldwide voice of airlines.  IATA has been a leader in moving toward a modern system to develop airport infrastructure and Tony, in his current role and in his previous role at Cathay Pacific, understands that.

I agree with Tony and with so many airline leaders around the world who see things the same way.  I remain hopeful that we can work with America’s airlines to build a better future for our passengers; one that helps airlines grow profitably into the future and allows communities the ability to prosper in the 21st century economy.

User Fees are Not Wacky Spendthrift Ideas

There has been a lot of attention paid recently around Washington to how to pay for transportation improvements.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been an important player in this and they should be; the business community is heavily invested (if you will) in how well our transportation system works.  Their president, Thomas Donahue, made an important speech earlier this week on a range of economic issues and when he touched on transportation he said that the users should pay.  Makes sense, I think.

capital domeAlso earlier this week Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has been under heavy pressure to do something to increase investment in the Commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure, announced a plan that would eliminate the gas tax and substitute an increased sales tax.  Reaction is mixed, but I was interested to hear Republicans interviewed say they are reluctant to embrace this because they feel users should pay.

What is interesting about all this is that two of the more noted conservative institutions in the country, the U.S. Chamber and Virginia Republicans (many of them anyway, the governor is a Republican after all) are publicly embracing a user fee approach to finance infrastructure.  And (without passing judgment on the governor’s specific plan as I am not intimately familiar with it) I agree with them.  Indeed, all those places all over the world we like to point to as being ahead of us in investing in infrastructure use some sort of user fee approach.  Whether in the form of a straight fee or a fuel tax or whatever, the principle of user pays makes sense and, if the levels are set correctly, it works.

This has been the crux of our argument on the PFC for years now.  The PFC is not a federal tax, it is not a federal ANYTHING, except a federal limit on the ability of a community to set a user fee to pay for its own aviation infrastructure.  The PFC, as important thinkers like Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation have argued for years, is the best conservative approach to financing airport infrastructure.  It is paid by users, it is not filtered through Washington or a state capital, it is tied to specific projects, stakeholders and the community must be consulted, and it has an expiration date.  If you gave a conservative a blank sheet of paper and asked him or her to draw up a perfect infrastructure financing scheme my bet is it would look just like this.  And such an approach would benefit the airlines too, that is why airlines all over the world have pushed for such a model.

These are not wacky spendthrift ideas.  They are solidly conservative and prudent and right for these economic and political times.

Challenges at the FAA

I just posted a comment in the on-going discussion at National Journal’s transportation blog on NextGen and other high-tech challenges at the FAA. View my comments and other comments, including A4A’s Nicholas Calio, there or read my full-text below:

Congratulations to The Honorable Michael Huerta, sworn in Wednesday as America’s 17th Federal Aviation greg-blog-photoAdministrator!   One of the first challenges that Administrator Huerta will need to deal with is how to allocate limited federal resources to a broad range of NextGen system development and implementation.  Unless the federal funding landscape changes significantly going forward, it will be essential for FAA to effectively prioritize NextGen investments on operational capabilities where benefits are most likely to accrue.  Fortunately, important progress has been made towards this prioritization both through the RTCA’s Task Force 5 and now via the NextGen Advisory Committee. (U.S. airports are fortunate to have extremely capable representation on the NAC with Sue Baer/PANJNY and Kim Day/DEN.)

With respect to “NowGen” investments, NextGen doesn’t address the fact that critical infrastructure at many of our most important airports is approaching or exceeding its design life.  From aging  terminals to aging runways, U.S. airports have basic infrastructure maintenance and improvement needs that still must be met.  Similarly, despite NextGen advancements, legacy air traffic control systems will still need to be maintained and in some cases, upgraded, until such time that NextGen systems are considered reliable replacements for these systems.

Regarding unmanned aerial systems, we believe the watch phase needs to be “do no harm.”  The increasing use of unmanned aircraft systems in domestic airspace has to be managed in a way that ensures aircraft are not adversely impacted either through loss of airspace access, reduced airspace capacity, increased environmental impacts, or reduced margins of safety.  These are extremely tall orders for aircraft that have been typically used in environments where civil aviation considerations have been secondary.  From an airport perspective “doing no harm” involves the development of common sense airspace rules that ensure these drones do not affect manned aircraft operations especially during safety critical landing and takeoff phases of flight as well as reasonable limitations on the airports at which drone operations can be based.

Will there be sequestration? I don’t think so

I was at an aviation event the other day and ran into a friend who runs another aviation association.  Say something about sequestration, she asked.  Ok. Here are a few thoughts.

First, I strongly believe it will not happen.  That Congress and the president will figure something out.  For a whole variety of reasons, I think the climate is right for some sort of dome

I do agree that if sequestration happens, NextGen would take a big blow.  This cannot be permitted to happen.  But pardon me for being a little jaded.  I’ve been working on air traffic control reform and modernization since 1993 when I authored a presidential commission report calling for satellite based navigation by 1997.  It didn’t happen then because certain interests didn’t want it and, frankly, the airlines did not care.

In the end, the best way to move this along is to change the way it is financed, allow access to capital markets, as proposed by our 1993 commission and so many others.  The real lesson from sequestration is that getting air traffic control modernization out of the usual Washington way of doing things is the best answer.

The same is true with airport infrastructure. Although the federal grant program is not impacted by sequestration, it just shows how unreliable Washington is as a partner.  We must allow airports more freedom to generate their own resources.

Bottom line.  Doubt it will happen, but I think sequestration really shows how we need less Washington in the matter of aviation infrastructure.

Just before I started writing this I learned of the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye.  Senator Inouye is the second longest serving senator ever, and one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century.  He was a true war hero, who left his arm on a battlefield in Europe during World War II.  He was a great patriot and senator, one of those people who knew how to get something done.  He was an important part of the Watergate Committee in 1973. Such was his integrity that, even though he was a Democrat, no one ever questioned his aggressive pursuit of the truth.  When I arrived in the Senate as a young staffer six years later, I could easily see the quality of this man.  Later, I had the honor of testifying before his committee.  And I still recall going to some ceremony in the Senate a few years ago, taking my seat and then looking up a moment later as Senator Inouye asked if he could sit next to me.  No pretense, no “great man” vibe.  Just one of the greatest people this country ever produced politely asking if a seat was taken and if he might be able to sit there.  I can’t stop smiling thinking about it.  What a great man.  They say his last word was “Aloha.” So I will say Aloha, Senator Inouye.

An Industry Veteran Has It Right

I was talking to a friend the other day, one who has been in the aviation industry a long time and worked with and for airlines for much of that time.  He expressed to me, unasked and unprompted, his concern with the airline industry’s initiative to enact a National Airline Policy rather than a National Aviation Policy.  How can we leave out all the other sectors, he wondered?  Where would this kind of approach leave us? On the outside, looking in, he guessed.

greg-blog-photoThat conversation turned my mind back to the speech Sen. Jay Rockefeller gave earlier this year to the Aero Club of Washington.  Sen. Rockefeller was lamenting the fact that it took so long to get an FAA bill enacted, and I should say it was an effort he poured his heart and soul into. With much justification, he said that the reason was the aviation industry never came together. He implored us not to let that happen again. That, in large part, is why the ACI-NA board passed a resolution favoring a National Aviation Policy, and specifically mentioned policies to promote every sector.

So, back to my friend, the airline veteran. How do you square what Sen. Rockefeller asked us to do with what the airline industry, as a group, is doing? You cannot. Dividing the industry makes no sense. As I have written before in this space, the only real thing that is keeping the aviation industry as a whole from moving together is the airlines’ unwillingness to engage on the issue of airport infrastructure. I know they like to point to various countries

So when will the airlines get the message and work with the rest of the industry?

around the world as having enlightened policies, but the point they miss is they have AVIATION policies not airline policies. They use policies to build and modernize airport infrastructure that can benefit airlines but are banned/limited here, partly because airlines have decided to cut off their nose to spite their face.

I continue to hope the entire aviation industry can come together. Airports are willing and I know most other sectors are willing as well.  So, why will the airlines not heed Sen. Rockefeller’s great advice and join the effort to come together?

Transportation Brings Us Closer Together

This time of year always makes me feel like traveling, this year more than most.  Not so much because I travel; I usually don’t.  And not so much because our staff always lines up a bunch of TV and radio interviews for me to do about how airports are ready for holiday travelers (27 of them this year).

No, this year I have been thinking a lot about travel because of reasons closer to home.

I often talk about how airports are places where family reunions start and end, where people go to get married or bury loved ones.  They are places where business deals happen.  I guess you could say the same about the whole transportation network.  I saw all of this over the past several weeks.

The devastation in my dad’s Toms River neighborhood – 12 days after Sandy hit the area.

Many of you might have seen the blog post I wrote after my mom died in August. It has been a tough time for my dad, and my wife and I have been up there several times.  It was hard to imagine it being worse, but that’s what happened.  He lives a block from the water on the Jersey Shore in Toms River.  His house survived and was built high enough that the living area is dry, and he’s on the bay side so he had a better chance.  Still, he was out of his house for three weeks, and to make matters worse, his car was ruined when it was swept over by a tidal surge when he was with my niece in Sayreville, NJ ( my home town, also the hometown of Bon Jovi, who brought a camera crew there afterwards – Google it).

There is a picture (left) taken 12 days after the hurricane on his street in Toms River – and it is far worse than the picture can show.  It was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen, seeing a family watching all their possessions being loaded into a dump truck and carted away because it was all gone.

When I was growing up in Sayreville I didn’t feel we were very close to water, but there is a bay and river not that far away and that’s what got his car.  Indeed, people were rescued in Sayreville by first responders on jet skis and in helicopters. What a mess.  Anyway, he moved from there to be with my sister in far northern Jersey, a man without his house, his car, and his lifelong companion.  And when my sister had to tend to an out of town emergency of her own, we went back up there on a moments notice to be with him.  By Thanksgiving he was back in his house and my boys and I, and my sister and her girls, could spend the holiday with him (he also now has a car!)

At the same time, my sister in law, who is from Illinois, has struggled with a brain tumor (non cancerous) for years and recently made the decision to have it removed.   She and my wife have a wonderful friend from college who is chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins so that is where the operation occurred, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.  Her family came from all around, and by every means possible, to be here.  She got the best of care, the tumor was removed, and she is now resting and recuperating at our house, fifty staples in her head.  What they can do now is amazing.

I don’t recount all this for any personal agenda or for sympathy.  I do it because, in an unusually personal way, it brought to life for me what I have been saying about transportation all along.

For most of human history, and even in some places today, these stories; being able (twice) to evacuate a hurricane, being able to come to someone’s assistance at a moments notice 250 miles away, being ale to schedule surgery 900 miles from home and have everyone here for it, being able to recuperate close to the hospital knowing you can get home in a couple of hours once the doctor gives the all clear.  These things are only possible because we’ve invested, in our past, in transportation.  And this doesn’t even cover all the help that flew and drove to the Jersey Shore, all the equipment and supplies that were flown or trucked from their place of manufacture to that region, all the medical equipment that was made, wherever, and flown or trucked to Baltimore.

Try to imagine life without transportation.  I play this game all the time.  It is impossible, isn’t it.  And now, like so many other people, I know this in an unusually personal way.