Presidential choices and airports

I guess I should start by acknowledging that my World Series prediction Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidenthas already flopped.  Rays in 6, I said.  Well, they can still win but only if it goes 7. 

We are now in the final week of the presidential campaign; a process that has lasted every bit of two full years.  By now, we have had an earful of almost every conceivable issue, some relevant to the future of the country, many not so relevant.  One word we have barely heard, though, is “airports.”

Yes, there has been some discussion of infrastructure investment, though I don’t recall any real talk about this during the debates.  I remember the word being used during the primaries by Senator Clinton and Governor Huckabee; both were making a point about investing in infrastructure and included airports in a list of critical transportation.  General Powell, during his much discussed endorsement of Senator Obama also used the word airport in this way.

I suppose when the nation is fighting two wars, the economy is in crisis and fuel prices reached an all-time record, this is not so unusual.  But, I think airport issues need to be on the radar screen of whoever wins this election, sooner rather than later.

The fact is that the credit crunch has meant that airport access to capital markets is largely frozen, and since more than 50% of airport projects are financed with bonds, this means that airport investment, if not frozen, is in a deep chill.  This is not good for job creation, of course, and is even worse for the future health of our economy.  Gridlocked skies, terminals and runways carry a real cost.

There are proposals for increased federal grants for airport infrastructure, focused on projects that are ready to go, and we support that.  But there is not enough federal money available to make up for the credit freeze, or for the fact that construction cost inflation (which is soaring right now), has eroded the value of the PFC user fee (currently limited to $4.50).

We are doing a capital needs survey to gauge the industry’s plans for the future.  We anticipate the survey will show a lower number than last time since many projects have been deferred or cancelled, especially if they were for the purpose of serving an airline no longer in operation. But the survey will still show billions of dollars of needed projects underway or in planning to strengthen our airport infrastructure.

 

We are certainly going to need an FAA reauthorization bill to be passed and signed, early in the new administration, and I hope the new president will make this a priority.  This is the kind of bill that, when I first got to Washington in the late 1970’s, would pass fairly routinely.  It is part of the nation’s basic business and must be passed.

The new president will also find himself in a position to finally make air traffic control modernization a reality.  I have written before about the vacuum tube Al Gore waved around at that 1994 press conference warning of the consequences of not taking action.  I have that vacuum tube on my desk as a reminder of how far we need to go.  Both Sens. Obama and McCain mentioned NextGen about 6 weeks or so ago when a computer outage in Florida caused delays in the system.  It is past time for action.

The new president can, as one of his first acts, put a stop to federal slot auctions.  We believe this slot auction proposal is illegal, and we have helped draft legislation to prohibit any further action.  We are also supporting efforts in court to stop it.

The new president will take office at a time in which our security response to the September 11 terrorist attacks has begun to mature to the point that we are close to some technological breakthroughs that can enhance security and better enable passengers to move through the system.  He will have to keep the pedal to the metal.

He will come to office at a time when our image in the world is low, and many potential travelers are not coming to the United States because there is a sense that we do not truly welcome them.  We must do something to improve that image, and to make more reasonable the process by which visas are obtained and travelers go through security, customs and immigration.  I served on the Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee (appointed by Secretaries Rice and Chertoff) and our recommendations are an excellent place for the new president to start.

Though the price of oil is below $70 per barrel, the new president will have to keep the momentum toward energy alternatives and independence that grew out of the summer’s fuel price crisis.  I am now reading Tom Friedman’s book Flat, Hot and Crowded, and he talks about how we lost the momentum generated by the high fuel prices of the 1970’s.  He says that if we continued to make the same gains in fuel efficiency we made from 1975-85, we’d be off Persian Gulf oil by now.  I am already worried, as I’ve written in this space before, that we are losing that momentum.  It would be unforgivable if we do what we’ve done before when the price of oil came down.

I do think the candidates understand these issues.  As you know if you’ve read this blog before or you look at my background in “About Greg,” I worked on Senator Biden’s senate staff for four years in the 1980’s covering a wide range of issues, including transportation.  I know he gets it.  I don’t know Senator Obama, but I do know many people close to him who advise him on transportation and am very confident in them (full disclosure, I am a member of the Obama campaign’s Transportation Policy Advisory Committee).  In the 1990’s, I worked with Sen. McCain and his staff on several aviation issues.  Indeed, I was part of the first hearing he called when he assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee in 1995.  I know he understands the importance of aviation and believe he will give these issues his attention if elected. 

Having a president who “gets it” is very important.  I will be very interested in the winner’s appointments to cabinet posts of importance to aviation, with the Homeland Security and Transportation Secretaries likely to be chosen early.  We will be calling upon our members and others to bring their message directly to the new administration and the new Congress, because a truism of Washington is that things are most likely to happen when there is political energy being exerted from beyond the beltway.  This will be especially important as the highway bill must be reauthorized next year and we cannot allow aviation to be overlooked.

Since my world series prediction hasn’t turned out so well I will refrain from an election prediction.  But I do encourage everyone to vote and to be ready to work with our new leaders to impress upon them the importance of aviation and airports and to help us pass much needed reauthorization legislation in the new Congress.

Football (and a little Baseball) and Travel

Each of the past three weekends, I’ve attended college football games. First it Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentwas Michigan State vs. Iowa in East Lansing. Then, Illinois vs. Minnesota in Champaign. Then Virginia vs. North Carolina in Charlottesville. I flew to the first two and drove to the third. I have sons at Michigan State and Virginia; and my wife’s family (4 generations of them) went to, or go to, Illinois. And, in case you were wondering, I am going to a Notre Dame game, against Navy next month in Baltimore.

One of the things you notice in an airport on a fall weekend is a proliferation of football gear. I was in the Detroit airport on Sunday night, Oct. 5, waiting for my flight home. I saw gear for Michigan State and Iowa, of course. But, also for Michigan, Penn State, Notre Dame (Go Irish!), Purdue and others. The Wisconsin women’s soccer team was also there. And, since the Bears had played the Lions earlier that afternoon, there were plenty of Bears fans.

The same phenomenon repeats itself throughout the country every weekend. Airports are filled with fans of their favorite teams. Some of them are buying even more gear at the concession stand, or straining to see a game that is playing on a nearby TV screen (the screens in Detroit’s new North Terminal are amazing, by the way!)

We live in an enormous country, and we have 300 million fellow citizens, a large number. It is scenes and events like this that help hold us together as a nation. Heck, I even saw a guy in an Alabama hat talking to a guy in an Auburn t-shirt at one airport recently.

Someone wrote a book a few years ago called Bowling Alone. Its thesis was that Americans prefer solitary pursuits and that we don’t gather like we used to. But the scene at airports all over the country during and around sporting events tells a different story. We still like going to the games and we still like gathering with others who are doing the same thing. Another example of airports as the new town square.

Wonder what the airports in Philadelphia and the Tampa area will look like the next week or so? Oh yes, my prediction: Rays in 6.

A presidential transition at TSA, DHS

This week, we held our semiannual ACI-NA Security Conference.  We hold the fall conference in Washington to better enable officials from TSA and key staff from Capitol Greg Principato - ACI-NA PresidentHill to join us (our other meeting is normally held in another part of the country).  The room was filled with attendees, incredible in these tough economic times; testimony to how important security remains as an issue in the airport community.

We were very pleased to have several TSA officials in attendance, and the conference gave them a good chance to talk to senior airport security officials, not just from the podium but in the hallway.  We also had a number of companies in attendance, many of which helped sponsor the event.  Sponsors were able to set up table top displays to show off their technologies, which is always a popular feature of the meeting.

One issue that was raised at this meeting and has been the subject of private conversations as well is the issue of transition.  We will have a new administration regardless of the election result (even if the Republican wins; the most difficult transition I’ve seen in 29 years in Washington was the Reagan-Bush transition after the 1988 election).  The Department of Homeland Security has never been through a transition, nor has TSA. 

I am pleased to report that TSA has personnel and processes in place to ensure a smooth transition, even during that awkward time when the previous people have left and the new appointees have yet to be confirmed.  The early years of any new administration are often times when people who wish us ill try to take advantage of transitions, so I am particularly pleased that TSA seems well prepared for the next few months.

Obviously, a President Obama or a President McCain will put his own stamp on these agencies and there will be some new people.  But it is good to know, from an organizational perspective, the transition should be seamless.

Energy prices coming down

I was reading the paper yesterday and saw a story that wondered whetherGreg Principato - ACI-NA President falling energy prices meant the end of momentum in the effort to design more fuel efficient vehicles. Here we go again . . .

I’ve written before (July 13, July 17 and Aug. 12)  about how there was so much momentum to attack our energy problems in the 70’s, but when the economy got better and prices started falling, the momentum went away. We had a brief price spike around 1991, but that came and went too fast to really get the nation focused on the problem.

When the price of oil reached $147 a barrel, it seemed we had finally gotten to the point of no return. Some analysts were predicting $200 or higher. You felt like T. Boone Pickens was haunting you; there were so many commercials. Energy policy is all anyone wanted to talk about.

Obviously, the more recent financial crisis has attracted much well deserved attention. And the presidential candidates have bought up all the TV time; pushing Mr. Pickens aside a little.

But what really worries me is that with prices under $70 as of now, the momentum to really do something about our energy future has gone. Both presidential candidates still talk about it, which is good; though it is often more about creating green jobs, combined with a sound bite about borrowing money from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia.

There might be millions of green jobs out there to be created; and certainly it seems as if we should borrow less and send less of that money overseas. Those are great ideas and even better sound bites. But will they survive the end of the campaign and, even more important, will they survive attention that is diverted to other matters at a time when the price of oil is down more than 50 percent since summer.

The solution to our real problem isn’t lower energy prices, though they are important right now. The solution is a real commitment; finally, to a different energy future and national will and leadership to make it happen. If all we want are lower pump prices now, and are satisfied with that, then that’s all we’ll get.

Six Checkpoints . . . Six Good Experiences


Over the past week or so, I’ve gone through security checkpoints in six U.S. airports.  Greg Principato - ACI-NA PresidentAviation security is often a frustrating experience.  Frustrating for travelers who must cope with new mandates (Shoes on or off?  Liquids, yes or no?).  Frustrating for the airport industry (Are there enough staff?  What can we do to reduce wait times?  Why are they doing THAT?).

Part of this is the nature of the beast.  Threats are constantly evolving, and so must the security experience.  I still recall the late night call in August of 2006, when the plot to attack airliners using explosive liquids was uncovered.  People who had already packed their shampoo and contact lens solution for the next day’s trip had no idea they were going to have to throw those things away at the airport the following morning.

Some of this is unavoidable.

What should be consistent, however, is the treatment of travelers (customer service we call it) by Transportation Security Administration agents, TSO’s in TSA-speak (Transportation Security Officers).  What I found during my unscientific experience at those six checkpoints was consistent courtesy and patience on the part of the TSO’s in those airports.  Maybe it is the new uniforms, maybe it is the training they are getting, but I was impressed by the quality and temperament of the TSO’s I encountered during those six trips through airport security these past few days.

Flying is a stressful experience for almost everyone.  From the fact that the act of flight itself involves a willing suspension of disbelief for many people (how do they stay up there?) to worries about whether you will be on time for your meeting or family reunion to wondering whether you have to pay a fee for your bag to the fact that today’s realities mean having to arrive earlier and probably spending more time at the airport, there is plenty of opportunity for travelers to feel some stress.  Perhaps no part of the experience is as stressful as going through the security line.

Today’s TSO’s are trained to reduce that stress level through their approach and demeanor.  This not only provides better customer service for travelers, it also has a security benefit since someone with bad intent will be stressed no matter what and that [person is easier to identify if the atmosphere around is calmer.

There will probably be some comments posted to this saying that someone had a bad experience at a checkpoint.  With more than 700 million enplanements in this country on an annual basis, that is likely to happen.  But my feeling is that things are getting better, and that today’s TSO’s are much better trained to provide good customer service, keep travelers moving, and to provide a more secure system.

No, the job isn’t finished.  Some of the technological advances being worked on right now will result in an even better traveler experience and bring even more security benefit.  All I’m saying is that after my unscientific poll this past week, I feel we are headed in a good direction right now.

Bob Holscher, R.I.P.

This past Friday, the airport industry lost one of its giants when Bob Greg Principato - ACI-NA PresidentHolscher, the longtime Director of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, died of cancer.

Bob was chairman of ACI-NA in 1997 and spent much of the 1990s as an active member of the ACI World Board.  He is one of those who can truly be called a founder of the worldwide “Voice of Airports.”  It is no wonder that Ted Bushelman, the Senior Director of Communications at the airport, noted in a story (kypost.com) on Bob’s passing that calls have been coming in from all over the world.

Bob was one of the first people I met when I took this job.  He started work at the airport in 1961 as a firefighter; becoming the director in the mid-1970s.  He was the consumate airport professional, and knew airport operations from the ground up.  He was also the kind of person who attracted little attention to himself; even though he would have been entitled given his record and longevity.

I always thought it was just great that Bob encouraged his staff and his board of directors to get so involved in ACI-NA and ACI World meetings and activities.  Doing so enables you to learn from the best, while also allowing others in the industry to learn from you.  The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region was lucky to have him, and the whole area will benefit from his work for generations to come.  Just as much, the global airport industry was lucky to have him too; and his legacy will live on as long as there are airports.

Bob Holscher…R.I.P.

The Credit Crisis, FAA’s 50th, etc.

While driving back to Washington from Maine (via New Jersey) last week, I passed Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentsigns or heard ads for airports in Bangor, Manchester, Portsmouth, Boston, Providence, Hartford, New Haven, New York (JFK and LaGuardia), Newark, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Trenton, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington (Reagan National).  I may have forgotten a few, and to them I apologize.

I have often said that an airline can make a decision to serve, or not serve, any community it wishes.  An airline’s most important asset moves at 500 mph, and can leave your community at that speed never to come back.  But the airport stays; it is the public face of aviation.

Many of the airports I’ve mentioned are facing tough times, some tougher than others.  All have also seen good times over the years, and are working on behalf of their communities to be in the best possible position to maintain and strengthen their community’s link to the air transportation system.

Airports and airlines have not always done the best job of realizing that they are in the same business, even though they have different stakeholders and different missions.  Since the fuel crisis-induced service cutbacks were announced, there have been times when these old, bad, habits have come to the fore; but more often in that time, airports and airlines have found ways to work together.  Whether on an airport-by-airport basis, or an industry-to-industry level, airports and airlines are making sincere efforts to find a way through these tough times.  And, it should be noted that with so many airport projects supported by bond financing, the financial crisis has only increased the challenge we face.

I don’t know if Congress will pass the bailout bill, or even whether it is a good bill.  I do know that access to credit is important to the economy and to our industry and can only hope that whatever passes and is signed into law will ease the crisis enough to restore that access to individuals and businesses of all kinds who need it to implement well considered plans to create jobs and promote growth.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the FAA is celebrating its 50th anniversary.  Last night, ACI-NA helped sponsor a reception in the FAA’s honor at the National Air and Space Museum.  The FAA was born out of a safety crisis, and its work over the past half century has made aviation the safest mode of transport ever devised.  The FAA is filled with some of the best civil servants I’ve met in my 29 years in Washington; and we have been fortunate to have them.  Happy Birthday FAA!