Thoughts on President Obama’s Speech Regarding Christmas Day

I just heard President Obama speak about the attempted attack on the flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. A few thoughts:

I strongly support the President’s order to review security policies and procedures. Indeed, ACI-NA several months ago initiated an industry/government effort to review current procedures and policies. This sort of review is needed and, I believe, reform in the basic statute enacted after the September 11, 2001 attacks is overdue.

I also strongly support the President’s call to focus on moving toward a more technology intensive security regime — something ACI-NA has been calling for over a period of several years. Ultimately, technology will be a huge part of a more secure and efficient system and we may have to re-think what we are willing to tolerate (it is said that whole body imaging would have helped detect this particular explosive but its use has run afoul of some folks).

I should say that TSA has worked hard since Christmas Day to respond to this incident and has worked hard to keep industry up to date and I appreciate their efforts.

One final note:  much of the media response to this has been irresponsible. I usually watch CNN, their airwaves were full of people who had no business speaking about this, including for example their political and business reporters. They ran “experts” through, no idea who most of these people were — wonder if any of them were the guys who assured us that TWA 800 was a terrorist attack and that Oklahoma City was an example of Islamic terrorists.

I saw a graphic:  “Christmas Flight Terror” that was up much of the time. Today, I am watching, Rick Sanchez is the anchor. He has shown pictures of planes being blown up at a test lab over and over — gratuitously. He had a graphic up there saying “Fear and Flying”. He should spend his time doing stories on Charlie Sheen and Ivana Trump. More his speed.

Airports: Armed and Ready for Snow

I’m writing this on Friday afternoon, as we who live in the D.C. area brace for what looks like the largest winter storm in many years.  Even small amounts of snow cause great consternation in Washington as people flock to the store to buy enough provisions to withstand the siege of Stalingrad; large amounts will shut the place down for days. 

Good thing airports don’t run that way.

I saw a recent story on all that airports do to keep their facilities running during and after snowstorms.  Unlike the street you live on, it is not enough to just plow the runways one time; there is a constant amount of work, effort and expense that goes into keeping the airport, as one airport director put it:  “open, safe and operational.” 

Airports spend a lot of money keep the runways open and the parking lots accessible. Of course, the Snow Belt spends more then the Sun Belt.  For example, one key Midwestern international airport spent more than $29 million in 2008 for snow removal and ice treatment. Twenty-two airports, according to an ACI-NA survey, spent more than $1 million to plow the snow. But even Texas gets winter weather with one city spending $10,000 in 2008. 

As you travel this holiday season, I hope your weather is good and your trip uneventful.  But if snow is involved, you can rest assured that your airport operator is doing everything possible to keep that facility open, safe and operational so that you can get to your destination and enjoy your holiday with loved ones.

How can airlines say “No” to PFCs increases with a straight face?

A news story crossed my desk today stating that U.S .airlines, IN THE THIRD QUARTER ALONE, made nearly $2 billion from bag fees, change fees, and other ancillary fees.  And this number DOES NOT INCLUDE such items as fees for pillows and blankets, food and drink, seat selection and entertainment options.  When you add all that in, the number is well over $2 billion.  IN JUST ONE QUARTER. 

The airlines earned $740 million on just baggage fees in the third quarter.

Now, I have no quibble with airlines pricing their product as they see fit; though this does raise serious policy questions since the aviation trust fund that supports a lot of aviation infrastructure projects, including air traffic control, depends upon revenue from the ticket tax and most, if not all, of these fees are exempt from that.  So, we do need to take that into account and airports stand ready to work with airlines, general aviation and others to figure out how to address this challenge.  But, if they want to sell their products in this way, that’s fine, I suppose.

That, of course, leads me to think about the proposal in Congress to allow airports to increase the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) user fee airports charge, by as much as $2.50.  A fraction of what is charged for bags, for example.  (Full disclosure, we support increasing the limit on the PFC user fee by $3 and indexing it for inflation).  Here is how most rationale people would think airlines should respond to our proposal: 

“This is a great idea.  We don’t have enough infrastructure, delays are far too common, and if we ever fix air traffic control all that investment will go down the drain if we don’t have enough runways, taxiways and terminals.  Terminal space for our precious passengers is far too limited in too many cases, and we need to expand that.  Many terminals are older, and they should be modernized, after all the convenience and needs of our passengers are our foremost concern.  And projects financed by the PFC, including the bonds that are backed by the PFC, reduce our rates and charges by tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars at many airports around the country – and that goes right to the bottom line.  PFC user fees are project based, so they don’t support bureaucracies.  Airports are a primary and critical piece of our assembly line and they need to work for our passengers.  This is a great idea – how do we support this?” 

BUT, here is how many (not all) airlines respond:  “This is a terrible idea.  Every dollar in the passenger’s pockets belongs to us, and we are determined to siphon every last one out.  We need to find more fees to charge (that Ryannair guy’s idea for a potty fee sounds interesting…).  WE want to control how much infrastructure is built – and we DO NOT want enough for our competitors.  Passengers don’t care if they have to sit on the floor in outdated, overcrowded terminals; it helps them appreciate the limited leg room we give them at the back of our planes.  Airports should be nothing more than four walls, a ceiling and some doors (a former airline CEO actually did say that to me, in exactly those words).” 

This should be a no-brainer.  Members of Congress in both parties support this PFC user fee increase.  We can build the 21st century infrastructure we need, create tens, even hundreds of thousands of jobs, all at no cost to the federal budget and all while saving the airlines money directly off their bottom line.  Let’s hope 2010 brings us, finally, to the point where Congress passes an FAA reauthorization bill with a PFC increase, indexed to inflation, so that we can get to work building and modernizing the infrastructure we need.

Talk to the Airports Before Updating the TSA Manual

The TSA’s mistaken posting of an outdated standard operating procedures manual on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site has gotten huge press attention, matched only by the attention received on Capitol Hill.  Three thoughts: 

This is obviously an important development and a big mistake.  I know TSA is moving quickly to deal with it, and I am confident they will. 

Second, any changes TSA might make as a result should be undertaken in consultation with airports, wherever appropriate.  TSA has made important strides in the past several years to work with airports and I hope that consultation will continue. 

Finally, news organizations and others that have kept a copy of this manual on their websites are being grossly irresponsible.  It is, in a country like ours, important that such stories be reported.  But to keep the manual on those sites is the height of irresponsibility.

It’s 6 p.m., time to put aside our differences

Last night, ACI-NA held its annual holiday party.  We invite folks from the North American Airport community, as well as people from across the entire spectrum of the Washington-based aviation community.  It is annually seen as the official kick-off of the holiday season for the aviation community. 

Three observations: 

First, I have worked on Capitol Hill, in state government, for a presidential commission, in the non-profit sector and in the private sector.  I have NEVER been around an industry that has so many smart people who are so able to see the big picture as what I have found in the airport business.  It is amazing, really.  I have been fortunate in my career to have worked for, with, and around some really smart and capable people.  But as a group, those who lead airports in the United States and Canada (airport directors, their staffs and their boards) are second to none as a group in combining capability and vision.  I should say that these traits are present in abundance in the global airport industry as well. 

Second, I was once told by the smartest person I’ve ever been around (former Virginia Governor Gerald L. Baliles) that the secret to leadership is to hire people smarter than you, set the tone and direction, and then let them do their thing.  Having been away from the office for several weeks on business trips, attending my sister’s funeral and then recovering from hip replacement, has given me a deep appreciation for the team we have at ACI-NA.  Governor Baliles once told me that if you have to be away and you are always worried about what is happening in the office then you have the wrong people.  I have never had to worry, not for one minute.  And going in yesterday for the first time since the surgery, to attend a board meeting and the holiday party, I could see from a whole different perspective the talent, dedication and passion of the staff we have at ACI-NA.  They are the best; worthy of an industry that deserves the best. 

Finally, I was struck at the party that people who spend lots of time every day between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. working to advance their own priorities and to defeat the priorities of others, can get together after 6 p.m. to share a drink and some food and some fellowship.  It is an industry that still values relationships and, for the most part, that still works to find a way forward.  That was on display last night at our holiday party.  Having been in Washington for more than 30 years, I can tell you that it is true that politics has changed, that things were once this way in official Washington, and now are not.  The fact that aviation has retained this constructive overall approach is to be celebrated.

Remembering Ed Stimpson

I’m writing the day after Thanksgiving and word has just reached me about the death of my old friend, Ed Stimpson. 

Ed Stimpson

Most recently, Ed served as chair of the board of the Boise Airport. Ed retired to Idaho after his term as U.S. Ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).   Ed had been selected to the ICAO Ambassador post by President Clinton and served into the first few years of the Bush Administration. It was no surprise that his service would span two different administrations; Ed was always known as a Pro’s Pro; I don’t think I ever met anyone who was as committed to a strong aviation industry, in all its aspects. 

I first met Ed when he was president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). I was executive director of a presidential commission in 1993 and worked with Ed on some recommendations related to the manufacture of general aviation aircraft. He did a fabulous job of working with us on the recommendation, and then getting it passed into law after the report was issued. That was Ed through and through:  He knew how to recognize an opportunity and then knew how to get things done. 

For this achievement and for so many others, Ed received the Wright Trophy, perhaps the highest individual honor available in the aviation industry. 

But Ed’s contribution went so much further than the list of his achievements. Ed cared as much about aviation as anyone I ever met, and he certainly cared about the people who make up the aviation industry as much as anyone I have ever met. The list of those of us to whom Ed contributed time, advice and wisdom is extensive.

I had my most recent conversation with him just 4 weeks ago. He was clearly being worn down by his illness, but was up on recent developments, and asked lots of great questions about where things stand. He also took the time to give me some career advice, advice I plan to take.

Ed was a giver and a doer. He left things better than he found them. He cared about results but even more about people. I don’t know that anyone who ever dealt with Ed didn’t come away with the greatest respect for him.

Ed Stimpson. RIP