Musings: Air Force Tanker Jobs and Tripoli’s Airport

I was driving in this morning and heard two things on the radio I just have to comment on.

First was just the latest in another series of commercials being run by Boeing and by EADS North America in their on-going battle to be chosen by the Pentagon to build a new generation tanker for the U.S. military.  I don’t know all the ins and outs of the issue.  I do know this has gone on a long time and has been very controversial.  I guess a decision will be made soon.  I certainly hope so; the commercials, while amusing, are getting tiresome.

One of the points they both make is that the project will create something like 50,000 jobs.  An impressive number.

It made me think, though, of the project at Philadelphia Airport that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  That project will create 50,000 jobs over the next 13 years.  An equally impressive number.  We can’t afford commercials like Boeing and EADS can, but we need to re-double our efforts to get this message out.

Even more impressive to me is that through the entire course of human history, economic growth has depended on developments in transportation.  From the invention of the wheel, the use of water borne transport, clipper ships, steam engines, the transcontinental railroad, and, of course, aviation, societies that have invested in infrastructure have grown.  The growth places new demands on transportation systems, which must be improved and updated.  This leads to more growth, placing more pressure on transportation, and so on.  It is one of the basic laws of human existence; and it is a never-ending cycle.  There is nothing static about it.  We are never “done.”  It saddens me that today’s debates on transportation tend to revolve around far narrower issues.

People waiting to be evacuated from Libya gather outside Tripoli airport. (Reuters)

The other thing I heard this morning was the sad story of people trying to flee the murderous reign of Libya’s psychopath dictator.  Apparently, the airport has been damaged, and they are using boats.  I heard that some people trying to leave (embassy and corporate personnel, mostly) have pets and will be stuck in Malta or some other place while their animals are quarantined for some period of time.  Isn’t there a way to waive this?  Common sense, people!

Reporting from Savannah

I’ve been in Savannah the past several days. Savannah is the third largest seaport on the East Coast as you can see by the picture of a ship taken from my hotel window.

Savannah is also among the most beautiful cities in the United States, maybe the most beautiful (and has one of the most beautiful airports). I actually had a little time to search for my great, great, grandfather who emigrated here more than 150 years ago. Making progress in tracking him down. I learned a lot about yellow fever, which was a major fact of life when he was here. A lot of times, people who died from yellow fever were buried in mass graves, which might be what is making this search so difficult.

We held our annual CEO Forum here, a meeting attended by dozens of airport directors and several corporate CEOs. The CEOs examined a number of issues including legislative and regulatory matters, economic issues (overall economic issues as well as airport economic issues), information technology, relations with airlines and so forth.

I like to say that airport directors are a rare breed. Not just because they have to possess so many skills (business, political, technical and so on). But also because there are so few of them. There are 430 or so commercial service airports in the United States. There are 750 players on active major league rosters at any one time. So, you are statistically twice as likely to play big league baseball as be an airport director. A rare breed indeed.

Joining us here were Angela Gittens, who runs ACI World; Olivier Jankovec, ACI Europe; Ali Tounsi, ACI Africa; and Javier Martinez, ACI Latin America-Caribbean. Patti Chau from ACI Asia-Pacific joined us from Hong Kong by phone. It is a uniquely talented group, and one that is passionate about the industry and serving our members. One of the great honors and opportunities of my career has been the opportunity to get to know these terrific people, to work with them and to learn from them. It was especially interesting to visit with Ali, whose office is in Morocco, home is in Tunisia and whose annual meeting this year (along with ACI World’s) is scheduled for Cairo.

Olivier Jankovec, ACI Europe, (left) and Ali Tounsi, ACI Africa, enjoy hamburgers in Savannah.

As I write this, it is my last night in Savannah. Ann and I are taking Olivier and Ali out for hamburgers, got to sample some real American cooking!

This hasn’t been perhaps as substantive as some of my more recent posts, but ya gotta lighten things up every now and then!

We can do something about infrastructure funding

I was reading a story in Monday’s Washington Post about infrastructure.  The title caught my eye:  Infrastructure is a Priority, Survey Shows, But Paying for it Isn’t .  The article talks about the president’s budget request, including the Infrastructure Bank idea (I blogged about this specific proposal for National Journal earlier this week, I’m not much of a fan).  The article is well done, it identifies the fact that many of these infrastructure proposals seem designed to avoid anyone having to say that they are raising any revenue to pay for anything (Anyone out there know a way to pay for infrastructure without money???)

The piece came as a result of a poll done in the aftermath of a report released by former Secretaries of Transportation Norm Mineta and Sam Skinner, and sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.  The Mineta/Skinner initiative was the result of work by a bipartisan panel of 80 experts (full disclosure, I am one of the 80).  I blogged about that report as well when it was released.

Here’s my take.  The problem is that everyone wants to complain about how bad things are.  Too much traffic, too many delays, things don’t move fast enough.  There are lots of studies done on the costs.  But too many folks are too intimidated by the basic fact of infrastructure building (it takes money).  We all need to be more willing to say this; we need to go out next to a clogged highway or a lineup of airplanes waiting to take off and point to that and say we can fix it, but we need to do something that is going to cost money.  Then, we need to make the extra effort, to show people in a very direct way that their money is being used on a particular solution, this is something we almost never do a good job of doing.  It shouldn’t take a collapsed bridge.

We in aviation are as guilty of this as anyone else.  We debate things like federal grants and local user fees within and among the industry.  That’s one of the reasons we are not further along on air traffic control modernization; it is a conversation held by, among, and for, aviation insiders.

We at ACI-NA are committed to changing this dynamic.  Transportation has become like the weather; everyone complains, no one does anything about it. But unlike the weather, we CAN actually do something about this.

Disturbing News: Job Creating AIP Gets Funding Cut

Well, today the President released his FY 2012 budget. In an era when creating jobs is all important and reducing the deficit is just about as important, the self-financed, job creating, Airport Improvement Program is slated for a cut of nearly one-third. Funding for this program has been the same since at least FY 2006.  Someone want to explain how this makes sense?

At least the administration, just like the Bush Administration before it, understands the need to allow local communities to create local jobs building local projects with local resources and is proposing easing up on the federal government’s interference in airport decision making by proposing an increase in the PFC user fee cap (the Bush administration had also proposed an increase).

That’s fine, and I applaud the president for supporting local control and decision-making, and we strongly support it, but it would have been much more helpful a year or two ago.  If the administration’s support for the PFC user fee  had been made apparent back then we might have gotten an FAA bill passed in the last Congress with an increase.  But best not to dwell on what might have been.

I’ll have to be satisfied that two consecutive administrations, one Democratic and one Republican, have proposed an increase in the PFC user fee.  Four successive administrations if you count the fact that the first President Bush signed the original PFC user fee into law, and President Clinton signed the last increase in the cap into law.

What really disturbs me about this is a sense that the administration has chosen to chop a certain amount out of the Job Creating AIP program and just balance it off with the Job Creating PFC.  But projects are not funded this way, projects have different mixes of financing sources, depending on circumstances. We haven’t even mentioned airport bonds, which are critically important and that is why we also need to reinstate the AMT waiver for airport private activity bonds, creating construction jobs and reducing borrowing costs ultimately paid by passengers and airlines.

Airport finance isn’t something where you can re-arrange the furniture and it all comes out ok.  The PFC user fee, AIP funds and the AMT waiver are all important for local communities to grow their local economies and make travel safer and more secure, with less hassle.

Combined with the House-drafted bill, it seems apparent that this country is on a road that could lead to a diminished air transportation system. NextGen will be NeverGen.  Get comfortable in your seat, whether it is on the plane or in the airport:  chances are in coming years you will be spending a lot more time sitting and a lot less time actually flying.

And don’t get me started on the fact that airlines shifting their pricing structure from air fares to one more reliant on fees has starved the aviation trust fund to the point where the very future of capital infrastructure and NextGen projects is in peril.  We at ACI-NA have spent some time shedding some light on that subject these past two years; I think it is time to shed some heat as well!

No other sector of our economy is so well placed to meet its own needs, if the federal government will let it. Early signs for the coming year, though, are not so good.

Ronald Reagan at 100

Reagan

I spent Thursday evening at the National Press Club, at a conference sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs to celebrate President Reagan’s 100th birthday and to assess his legacy.

The focus of this conference was foreign affairs, though discussion veered into a number of other issues. The program was introduced by Miller Center President Jerry Baliles, former Governor of Virginia (and, yes, another former boss of mine). Andrea Mitchell (chief foreign correspondent for NBC News) was the moderator. Former Senator John Warner, former Ambassador John Negroponte, Senator James Webb and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass formed the panel.

As you might imagine, the panel easily filled two hours with stories, analysis and commentary (from an aviation perspective perhaps the most interesting comment is that we should not underestimate the impact of President Reagan’s dismissal of the air traffic controllers on his ability to conduct a robust foreign policy, his foreign interlocutors knew he meant what he said).

In my previous life, I made a study of the Reagan presidency and wrote a couple of articles. What prompted my interest and actually writing something was, having worked on the Hill for most of his presidency and in Washington for all of it, I saw a lot of what I thought were contradictions. The anti-tax president signing several very large tax increases.  The anti-Soviet crusader wanting to work a deal with the Soviet Union to eliminate nuclear weapons. The anti-terrorist hard liner leaving Lebanon after the bombing of the marine barracks and trading arms for hostages with Iran.

He is a fascinating figure. What I didn’t understand in real time but do know is that, in the end, he was the most successful practical politician of our time. He wrote a letter to Arthur Laffer, the economist who popularized supply side economics, explaining was an increase in the gas taxLaffer Letter to fund infrastructure improvements was really a user fee and not a tax (the Passenger Facility Charge, which came into being after his presidency would fit easily into his argument and I can’t believe he would have opposed this means of local financial freedom).

Conservatives claim he NEVER compromised. Wrong. Liberals now claim he was a secret liberal. Wrong. He was a unique and singular figure who defies easy characterization.

I was in attendance at Reagan’s first inaugural (everyone should go to an inaugural at least once; I’ve been to 4 and it is powerful to think that leadership changes in many parts of the world under difficult circumstances — witness Egypt — and in the US it occurs with bands playing, colorful bunting, and people from both parties applauding). I remember all that happened that day, including the release of the hostages. Whether you voted for him or not (not in my case) it was clear on that day that things were changing.

President Reagan, as President Obama has said, changed the trajectory of America. He did it by cutting taxes, and raising them. He did it by standing up to the Soviets, and talking to them. I could go on and on.

President Reagan knew that things are not achieved in a straight line. He also knew that he had to work with a lot of people he didn’t agree with (his famous relationship with Tip O’Neill, then-Speaker of the House was mentioned several times tonight). These days everyone wants a yes or no answer to every question and people think it is almost sinful to even talk to someone from the opposite party. President Reagan would be disappointed, but he would be sure that we’d eventually get it right and move forward again.

The 19th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said that a leader must understand himself, and the times in which he lives.  Say what you will about President Reagan (remember, I didn’t vote for him).  But you must agree that he met Disraeli’s test.

My Old Boss, Don’t Diss Airport Construction Jobs

Sometimes it’s the ones you like the most who disappoint you the most . . .

Yesterday, my former boss, Vice President Joe Biden, gave a speech in Philadelphia touting the administration’s initiatives on rail investment.  We had made sure the administration had good information on a great big project at the airport up there that will create 50,000 jobs over the next 13 years (Here’s an idea for a contest: If anyone knows of any project that can do as well as, or better than, that, please send it in and we will post it).

Vice President Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ride the Amtrak Acela train from Washington to Philadelphia for his high-speed rail speech.

In the end, they chose not to highlight that project, presumably because it interfered with the rail message.  I don’t agree with that decision, but on a certain level can understand it.  One message at a time, thanks to Michael Deaver and Ronald Reagan.  If that’s all that happened, or didn’t happen, I’d have nothing further to say.

But what disappointed me was that the Vice President’s argument for rail revolved, in part, around the idea that flying is an unpleasant experience, all those delays and all.  He even seemed to call into question the investment in the new runway in Atlanta (which has reduced delays around the country due to its role as a major global hub and has had great environmental benefits by getting aircraft on the ground faster, and is promoting billi0ns in economic activity).  This all brought back to mind the President’s comment in the State of the Union that one of the advantages of rail is that you don’t have to endure a TSA patdown. (Is that really an argument we want to make as a nation, Mr. President?)

What is so disappointing is that there seems to be an effort to undercut aviation in order to advance another agenda.  I have no issue with the administration choosing to push rail; I don’t agree with it in every detail, but rail does have an important role to play.  But isn’t their case strong enough without having to base it on bashing aviation?

So, Mr. Vice President, I know how committed you are to rail, having ridden that Washington to Wilmington route with you once or twice.  I, too, take the train when I go to Philadelphia or New York; I’m not saying rail should not be strengthened.  It should.  I’ve ridden that maglev train in Shanghai (which goes to the AIRPORT by the way).

But I know how committed you are to economic growth and to the idea that a job is the best social program ever devised.  Aviation has an important part to play, as does rail, as do highways.  Transportation and economic growth go together.  Please.  There are plenty of good arguments to make without talking down aviation.  Especially when you have efforts like they do in Philadelphia where they are creating 50,000 jobs.

Remembering Jim Morasch

This past Thursday, our industry lost one of its best, Jim Morasch.  Jim was the director of Tri Cities Airport in Pasco, Washington.

Jim Morasch

Some might think that someone running a relatively small airport in a far corner of the country might not be of such consequence, but that was not true.  Jim understood that the air transportation system needs the best effort from all of its leaders, and Jim was dedicated to that proposition every day.  He served for years on ACI-NA’s Goals and Programs Committee, and also served on the board of AAAE, serving as its president some years back.  Jim encouraged the active participation of his staff and board members in industry activities, one of his board members, Ernie Boston, is among our most active Commissioners Committee members.  To me, this ability to see the big picture, and to be determined to play a role in shaping it, are the real signs of a leader.  Jim was a leader in the airport industry with few peers.

Jim was one of this country’s real heroes, flying helicopter rescue missions in Vietnam.  When the going was tough, and wounded buddies were on the field of battle, Jim was one of the people who came in to get them – even sometimes when the action was still a bit thick.  The guts that takes, I just don’t have anything in my life to compare it to.

My last communication with him was just a few days before the car accident that took his life.  We had invited all airport directors to a meeting to discuss some legislative priorities and he was letting me know he could not make it but was interested in the outcome.  The meeting was held the day he had his accident.  How I wish his schedule had allowed him to join us that day.  And,  I will never forget how the mood in the meeting changed as word of Jim’s accident, and his critical condition, spread among his colleagues.

I did not know him as well as I would have liked.  But a former colleague of mine here at ACI-NA, Steve Van Beek, wrote to me after learning that Jim had died.  This is what he said:

“Jim was a:

1.            Nice guy/gentleman

2.            Smart

3.            Never wore it on his sleeve

4.            Could think big for the industry and small for his airport.

5.            Saw value in AAAE and ACI-NA.

One of those guys who is absolutely key to have as a board member; the impact goes far beyond his individual contributions.”

If you could have seen the look on the face of two dozen of his colleagues as I did the day we learned of his accident, you would know just how widely these sentiments were shared, and just how large a hole his death leaves in the industry and in the hearts of his friends and colleagues.

Jim Morasch, RIP

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished?

Over the past two weeks I’ve flown more than 6,000 miles and met with half or more of our membership.  Also spent a great deal of time on or near Capitol Hill, including a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  Senator Reid has brought the FAA Reauthorization Bill to the Senate floor, and declared it to be the Jobs Bill that it is.  We will do all we can to help pass it.

"The idea that airports have done all this, while so many others have done the opposite, and will now be in for an additional share of pain as budgets are cut and the federal government controls a key financing mechanism; well, it just doesn’t make any sense."

As I’ve traveled, spoken to people, read national and local publications, met with policy makers, talked to the press; it is hard to avoid the fact that a specific set of concerns have most all Americans, and most everyone in Washington, transfixed:  Jobs.  Concern about the debt.  Holding the line on spending.  Jobs.  Local control and decision making.  Infrastructure.  Jobs.

Let’s review the bidding:

Regarding federal spending, I keep hearing folks say that we should revert to pre-stimulus levels, even to 2006 levels.  Fine.  The Airport Improvement Program was funded at $3.5 billion in 2006.  It is funded at $3.5 billion today. It is at exactly the same level it was before anyone had ever talked about the Tea Party, or before there was any talk about a stimulus.  The airports of this country have held at that same level, even though we all know the needs have increased.  Oh, and by the way, this program is paid for out of funds provided by users of the system.  It has its own funding source and is paid for.  No need to borrow money from China or wherever.  And jobs?  This program has created hundreds of thousands of jobs during that time.

Regarding the Passenger Facility Charge user fee; this should be a real favorite in today’s Washington.  It is money collected from local airport users that stays at that location.  It does not pay for a single bureaucrat and never comes anywhere near Washington, D.C.  It is project-based, you cannot simply put a PFC into place just to collect cash.  It is all about local control.  It does not increase the federal deficit; in fact this fee takes pressure off the federal budget.  And, over the years, it has put hundreds of thousands of people to work.  And all the while, it has been artificially limited by the federal government; it is a prime example of federal meddling in local decision-making.

It is said we are living in a new world in the country today, and especially here in Washington, D.C.  A world in which we are not going to borrow billions from the Chinese, a world in which we are going to go back to 2006 spending levels, a world in which we are going to concentrate as much control as possible at the local level, a world in which we are going to reduce the size of the federal government.  A world in which our pre-occupation is how to put people to work.

Airports have been living in this world for a long time.  Long before there was a Tea Party or a stimulus or TARP or any of those things.  Airports have had their share of federal spending kept at 2006 levels.  Airports have had the federal government meddling in what are local affairs.  Airports have relied on a funding mechanism that is the antithesis of   bureaucratic.  Airports employ, and have created jobs for, hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention the millions whose good jobs are made possible by the travel and trade done through airports.  I keep thinking that if other sectors of our economy had been run the same way we would not be in the economic mess we find ourselves in today.

The idea that airports have done all this, while so many others have done the opposite, and will now be in for an additional share of pain as budgets are cut and the federal government controls a key financing mechanism; well, it just doesn’t make any sense.

If you agree, make sure to talk to your senator, your congressman, your other local elected officials, at whatever level.  Talk to your business community, civic organizations and press.  Tell them this story.  We have a long way to go to turn all this around.  We’d better get going.