Swine Flu Preparation – Just Another Day at the Airport

Guest posting by Debby McElroy

Before last week if you said swine flu the first thing to come to mind would have been the massive vaccine campaign in 1976 – generally agreed as an overreaction to the concern that the virus would pose the same risk as the flu that killed millions of people following World War I. 

The important thing for the government is to implement preventive measures and respond to swine flu outbreaks to prevent people from panicking. ACI-NA has been in daily contact with the Department of

Healthworkers board an AirTran flight at BWI

Health workers board an AirTran flight at BWI on Tuesday evening.

Transportation (and less frequently with Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control) as they understand that airports have plans in place to address all sorts of emergencies – including public health concerns.  And, no surprise that the system is working! Just look at the response to the incident at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport on Tuesday night, when airport EMS personnel worked with AirTran Airways and local public health officials to evaluate two passengers traveling on a flight from Cancun after reports they had flu-like symptoms.  There was no flu or public health risk (just some intoxicated passengers), but both federal and industry officials agreed that the airport’s plan worked incredibly well.   

ACI-NA remains very busy working with the feds to provide the latest information and believe me there is no shortage of news. Whether it is notification that Transportation Security Administration and Custom and Border Protection officials are conducting passive surveillance of airline passengers to an influenza check list for state and local governments, we are making sure that the comprehensive plans at airports just keep getting better. 

Debby McElroy is the executive vice president for policy and external affairs at ACI-NA.

Bird strikes, the database and the media

I’m writing from Chicago where we are holding our annual meeting for those who serve on the boards of airports. 

We flew out yesterday; Rev. Jeremiah Wright was on our flight. A year ago he was as recognizable as any man in America and his trips to D.C. were headline news. Now, he is just an anonymous passenger. What a difference a year makes.  

Birds have been much on my mind lately. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has decided to open the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wildlife strike database to the public. Although the FAA has previously stated that non-disclosure leads to better information and even though our members had various views, this decision seemed inevitable and we will work with FAA to ensure that the data is used to best effect to enhance safety and public understanding. 

The early returns on that last point are not encouraging. 

First, on the ride to the airport yesterday, I heard former DOT Inspector General Mary Schiavo pontificating about this on the radio. Rarely have I ever seen a former ranking official use that credential in more irresponsible ways than has Ms Schiavo since she left office. Having her comment on this will only undermine public understanding, but we have come to expect irresponsibility from her. 

Of greater concern is the way the media overall have covered this issue the past few days. Raging headlines about bird strikes increasing at an enormous rate since 1990, with an implication that one can just project that into the future. 

The fact is that the reporting and gathering of information over the past two decades has improved greatly and will of course continue. The fact that more strikes were reported may, or may not, mean more are occurring. It depends. 

And, the fact is that the sample sizes for many airports are so small that an increase of just a few means a large percentage increase. And, if there have been many more flights over those past 20 years out of certain airports than before 1990 does an increase in strikes mean growing problem, or just mean that there were more flights and the rate is the same or even less? 

Airports, airlines, pilots and controllers all have a role to play and all take it seriously. If this data is explained and reported properly, it can lead to rational discussions about the issue, as well as about zoning and land use issues.  Local politicians need to understand that their decisions can actually increase the danger. (The co-pilot of US Airways 1549 addressed this during his testimony in Congress recently.) 

But the media need to do a much better job reporting this and resist the temptation to write the easy story. And will someone, please, resist the temptation to put a microphone in front of Mary Schiavo!

AMT-free bonds helping airports

I just saw a story today that said Miami Airport will be selling $600 million in bonds to support its capital program.  This sale will be made possible by a provision in the recently enacted stimulus bill that eliminates the alternative minimum tax (AMT) on many airport (and certain other) bonds for the next two years.  Miami is planning to sell another $1.3 billion according to this story before this provision expires.

This is on top of stories about the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) selling $400 million worth of bonds; with Philadelphia and Nashville selling somewhat dulles-runway_paving_begins_3-2007lower amounts.  All made possible because of this provision; in fact due to the credit crisis, MWAA had been previously unable to sell their bonds. Houston is also considering a bond sale. 

This may seem like an arcane provision of an obscure tax law, but what it means is economic development, needed aviation infrastructure improvement, and jobs.  A great deal of airport infrastructure is financed through bonds, and the credit crisis had brought that market to a halt.  There are still problems, but removing AMT has helped loosen up the market and make this financing possible.  We believe that billions more will be sold over these next two years, resulting in even more infrastructure improvement and job creation. 

ACI-NA has made this a priority issue for the past four years.  You see, the bonds that are subject to AMT are classified as private purpose bonds, even though most people would say airport infrastructure is a public purpose.  The stimulus bill gave us an opportunity to address this and it happened.  It is awfully nice when you see the result of such work lead to important projects being built and jobs created.  It also helps lower costs for airports and airlines alike, allowing capital investment dollars to go further. 

One final note:  it is worth noting that many airport bonds (30% or so) are backed by passenger facility charges (PFC).  We are working for an increase in the PFC right now, which will lead to a better system for our passengers and communities. 

With sensible policies, airports are able to generate billions for capital investment, taking pressure off government treasuries and providing great benefit to the traveling public.  What happened in Miami today; in Washington, Philadelphia and Nashville earlier; and will happen in many other communities in the coming months; is a great example of that.

Random Thoughts . . .

Getting settled back in after a month in which I only slept in my own bed four times.  A few random thoughts: 

Thanks to all of you who had such a nice reaction to the post about my father-in-law.  I really appreciate it. 

The White House has announced the appointment of Randy Babbitt to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  I have known Randy for many years.  He is smart, dedicated and is the kind of person who engenders trust and brings out the best in people.  It is a great appointment and I look forward to working with him in this new role. 

I understand his confirmation may not occur till next month some time.  Hopefully it can be done more quickly than that.  We need him in place, and then we need Congress to pass a long term FAA reauthorization bill. 

The day I left for Greece, I began the day at a press event with Jim May of the Air Transport Association and Bill DeCota, the Aviation Director for the Port Authority of New York and New nextgen_allianceJersey.  We discussed the importance of finally modernizing air traffic control, an effort also known as NextGen.  Bill eloquently talked about the need to update air traffic control, while also providing needed infrastructure on the ground.  Later that day, Bill gave a speech at the Aero Club of Washington on this topic.  I have worked on air traffic control for many years and the effort needs a spokesman like Bill. 

When we flew to Greece, we had a one hour layover in Paris, at Charles de Gaulle Airport.  Knowing how big the place is, I was worried, but the transfer went very smoothly.  Passport control and security worked very well, and we made the flight with time to spare. 

On the way home, we had a 90-minute layover, so I was less worried.  Turns out, I should have been. There was a large crowd at passport control.  Once through that, we had to pass through security.  This time, it was like a Saturday Night Live skit lampooning security.  Very frustrating.  Still made the flight, but I was glad to have the extra 30 minutes.  Some people think the person in my position does not have to go through all the same hassles, but I do.  It is not fun. 

The Air France counter personnel and cabin crews were great on all flights. 

Bourtzi, the fortified islet afloat in the middle of the bay.

Bourtzi, the fortified islet afloat in the middle of the bay.

I’ve already written about Greece, but when asked about the difference between this trip and the one I made 35 years ago, when I was in high school:  All the old stuff is the same, everything else is totally different.  It is a great place to visit and I highly recommend it.  An often overlooked treasure:  the town of Nafplio.  We drove there on Sunday and it was well worth the trip.  Google it and check it out.

A look at the ACI World board

Greetings again from Greece. The ACI World board meeting has concluded and its members are traveling back to their homes. 

It is a most interesting and diverse group. The board is chaired by Jim Cherry who runs the airport in Montreal. He does a great job of balancing all the various viewpoints, ownership models, personalities and cultures represented. 

The cargo industry on the Greek Island of Hydra

The cargo industry on the Greek Island of Hydra

As we are in Athens, you might have guessed that the guy who runs the airport here is a member, and you would be right. He and his staff did a great job hosting us. 

The board includes the chairman of Sydney’s board, who also chairs several business units for Macquarie Bank. The leader of Beijing‘s airport was here, as was the leader of Kuala Lampur‘s. The Saudi prince who looks after the airports there attended his first meeting as a board member. There was someone from every continent in attendance. 

Almost every airport ownership and operating model you can think of was represented around the table. What all have in common though is a shared commitment to the safe, secure and efficient movement of passengers; and to contributing to the economic growth of their communities. Whenever I am with these ladies and gentlemen my pride in being part of the airport industry is renewed and strengthened. 

There are a variety of ways to own or operate an airport. What does not vary is the commitment to passenger and community. It is a talented and dedicated group; the world’s airport industry is in good hands.

Traveling to Athens

Greetings from Athens, Greece. A Cradle of Civilization. Birthplace of Democracy. 

I’m here for the ACI World board meeting, along with some other related meetings. Last time I was here it was 35 years ago and I was in high school. Greece was not then a democracy, indeed military dictatorships were not unheard of at the time. 

But Greece got its act together and joined the European Union in 1981 and its democracy has done quite well since. It is a real achievement of the European Union that Greece, Spain and Portugal became and have remained flourishing democracies. It is well known that the EU’s embrace helped Eastern European countries become democratic, but what happened here, in Portugal and in Spain is not focused upon enough. 

The 11 o’clock a.m. Sunday changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Greece is a more ornate ceremony, where scores of people gather to watch.

The 11 o’clock a.m. Sunday changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Greece is a more ornate ceremony, where scores of people gather to watch.

After my wife and I arrived at the hotel we walked down to the Plaka, a pedesitrian area with lots of shops and restaurants. On the way, we came upon the changing of the guard at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier. Such rituals always interest me, they are very similar across cultural lines and very different at the same time. I snapped a picture of tonight’s ceremony. 

The next few days will be filled with a lot of talk about airport finance, environment, security and so on. Airport leaders from around the world will be here. The discussions will be lively, and every night I will have the Acropolis out my window for inspiration.