I guess I should start by acknowledging that my World Series prediction has 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 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.