Response to NATA’s Blog on “How To Fire Your Airport Manager”

What a place Iceland is. Some of the most beautiful waterfalls, glaciers, terrain and landscapes I’ve ever seen. Yesterday we visited a lagoon filled with blue water and icebergs. Last night we went back there to watch a fireworks show over the icebergs. Impressive. Then on the way home we saw the Northern Lights!

It is a great place to relax. But the relaxation was interrupted when I was sent a really horrible article written by Jim Coyne, President of the National Air Transport Association (NATA). NATA represents fixed base operators among others.

Now there are some legitimate differences of views on some issues between airports and FBO’s; but an effort to better understand each other’s perspectives is the best way forward. Indeed, we hosted two key FBO leaders at our small airports conference this summer.  I am meeting with another Thursday in my office and we have a panel on this subject set for our annual conference. This is the way to go.

In the middle of all this, Jim writes an article called “How to Fire Your Airport Manager.” Jim’s a good guy, a former congressman, but this article goes way beyond advocacy. It employs the usual technique of assuring that any airport manager literate enough to actual read the piece is not the kind of person he’s talking about (airlines have also perfected this), and then goes on to say that many airports are “petty tyrants” among other things. It gives advice on how to get rid of airport managers, presumably those who do not roll over in negotiations with FBOs. It is NOT what we need right now, indeed it damages his members efforts to ensure that their airport partners better understand their views.

The airport is a community asset; it exists to provide a connection to the air transportation system for the community. It does not exist to serve corporate needs of airlines or FBOs or anyone else; it is there to serve the economic needs of the community.

In so doing, the business imperatives of airlines, FBOs and others can be advanced, especially the well-run ones.  If it does not serve the needs of the community it is up to the community to decide whether or not to keep the manager. It is not up to the FBO providing services at the airport, especially when you consider the FBO wouldn’t be there without the airport in the first place.

So yes, let’s advocate for our members. Yes, I understand that every now and then we have to say provocative things. But let’s stay away from comparing airport managers to the likes of Papa Doc Duvalier and stay away from saying and doing things that undercut our own members’ interests. I look forward to our upcoming meetings with FBO leaders and to the ongoing effort to better understand different viewpoints.

Or do we really want airport managers trying to get FBO CEOs fired too?

Lessons From Law Rock

Leif Erikson Statue and Me

Greetings from Iceland.  I’ve hung out with my new friend Lief Erikson, visited a lagoon full of hot blue water and hundreds of semi-clad people (I was not one of them), seen enormous glaciers, volcanoes and waterfalls and, twice, stood astride the European and North American tectonic plates. The people are friendly, the food (especially the lamb stew) is terrific and it hasn’t been too cold. Some call it a Nordic Hawaii.  I see it as a cross between Hawaii and Yellowstone. And it is as close to the east coast as California. I highly recommend it.

Thingvellir National Park

Today we visited Thingvellir National Park.  This is one of those places the tectonic plates meet. It is also a location of great significance to the Icelandic nation.

It was here that the newly independent nation of Iceland was proclaimed in 1944.  It is here that major national celebrations are held. It is also here that, at the end of the first millennium, the people and their leaders met to decide important matters of law and government.

They met at a spot called Law Rock (if you stand there you can imagine why they met there, the back drop is amazing and the vista spectacular).  The met for two weeks and disposed of all their business in that time.

Gullfoss Waterfall

For some reason (perhaps that I’m a dork), it made me think of the fact that we have not been able to pass a basic law like FAA reauthorization for four years.  Yes, things were very different back in those days and politics in contemporary America is a messy business – for good reason.  But still.  FAA Reauthorization.  The basic business of government.  A shutdown and 21 extensions?  I’m not saying we need to pass everything in two weeks every time.  But how about we aim for that when Congress comes back – a two year extension of current law passed in less than two weeks.

Evidence Washington Doesn’t Understand Airports….

You’ve heard me talk about how federal law and regulations control airports’ financial practices the same way as during the Nixon Administration; even though airlines have been deregulated and the role of airports in taking care of customers and promoting new air service has changed dramatically. If Washington would just get out of the way and allow airports to use tools being used all over the world, we could create jobs, lower the deficit and build the future.

Now comes word OMB wants agencies to cut huge amounts from every program. Fine, except that federal spending on airport infrastructure has not increased, but has actually decreased since 2005. Lots of people talk of reducing federal spending to 2005 levels. Fine. We’re already there. If you are not going to set us free then leave us the heck alone!!!!!

August: The Perfect Month for Town Hall Politics

August in Washington is a month usually referred to as the “Dog Days.” Historically, not a lot happens. Congress goes away as do many agency officials. A lot of people come to the conclusion that someone has hit a big pause button and like the soap operas of old we can pick back up in September as if nothing changed.

But August is underrated, historically, as a month when large events happen. If you look through history a number of important military actions occur or begin in August (Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait is an example of this) perhaps to take advantage of vacations being taken by other leaders.

But in American politics, August has become a key month. Current stories out of Iowa certainly show that. And looking back two years, opposition to the president’s health care bill (and the rise of the Tea Party) really crystallized during the August congressional recess.

That is why we have pushed so hard to have our members and others attend congressional town meetings. Those are hugely important events, and if we want to send the message that we can’t shut the FAA down again, it is a perfect opportunity.

More than that and precisely because I am VERY worried Congress will neither agree on a long term bill nor to an extension before the current one expires on September 16, I have written to congressional leaders asking them to pass a two year extension of current law and I am asking each of you to go to those town meetings and ask the same thing. We cannot allow the FAA to shut down again, the economy took a big hit, and we need the certainty of a long term extension. Tell that story; let’s be sure Congress comes back determined to set the FAA on a stable course!

A final, sad, note:  one of the real pleasures of this job has been to work with airport board and commission members. These men and women perform this important work with little or no compensation. They do it because they understand the airport to be a critical economic engine and they want to preserve and enhance that.

One of the most passionate commissioners has been Charlie Lombardo of the Bob Hope Burbank Airport. Charlie’s passion for his community, airport and the industry was impressive and contagious. He had an endless supply of ideas to improve the industry and to improve our organization. He was vice chair of our Commissioners Committee, set to become chair in a few months and join our board. He had invested so much time and energy.

Charlie did all this even while battling the effects of prostate cancer that had spread. There were a couple of occasions when he thought he had gotten through it; I remember my wife and I speaking with him for an hour one night at ACI-NA’s annual meeting in 2009 and how happy he was to have gotten a good report on his health and how hopeful he was.

Even another round of bad news and treatment didn’t dampen his enthusiasm and commitment. When we talked at our Commissioners Conference in May of this year he again thought he was in good shape going forward and had a lot of ideas for his upcoming chairmanship of the Commissioners Committee, including hosting the meeting next spring in his community. He was also excited to have been considered (he wasn’t selected) to replace Gilbert Godfrey as the voice of the Aflac duck.

This past Sunday, Charlie went to his back yard to relax in a lounge chair and never woke up. I will miss his passion, energy and optimism, as will all of us who worked with him. News of his death hit our office hard and in talking with Burbank’s director, Dan Feger, I know it hit with devastating impact out there as well.

Charlie, we’ll miss you and never forget you!  RIP.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT STANDS IN THE WAY OF AIRPORT INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT

Thank goodness the FAA shutdown is over!  More than once during the past several days, I recalled a line I wrote for the report of the National Commission to Ensure a Strong Competitive Airline Industry, to the effect that aviation is the only industry whose day to day efficiency is capped by the efficiency of the federal government.

ACI-NA has been arguing for years that we need to reduce federal influence in the building of airport infrastructure and give airports the financial freedom to raise their own resources and communities and the freedom to invest.  If this shutdown, which closed hundreds of projects around the country, doesn’t prove why it is important to do that, I don’t know what will.

The financial framework under which airports must work to raise and spend investment capital dates back to the Nixon Administration; back when the federal government told the airlines where they could fly and how much they could charge; back in the day when wage and price controls seemed like a good idea.  Congress got the federal government out of the business of running airlines in 1978, but left the federal government right in the middle of the business of financing airport infrastructure.  With the self-inflicted wound of the FAA shutdown as fresh evidence, we can see just how stupid that is.  (Yes, I said STUPID!)

Around the world, aviation infrastructure is being built using new and current financial techniques.  Our competitors are eating our lunch, while we are stuck with Nixon-era federal shackles.

We need to free the airports of this country to invest in our economic future.  Our laws, and the short-sighted connivance of the airlines, impose a federal boot on the necks of airports everywhere.  We need to modernize the financial framework under which airports operate and invest.  It will benefit our passengers, our country, our economy, our communities and, I would strongly argue, the airlines themselves.  Yes, I said it, the airlines as well.

The FAA shutdown should provide all the evidence we need that we can no longer shackle airports’ ability to finance needed projects.  Anyone who can’t see that probably can’t see the large “E” at the top of the eye chart.  Or maybe doesn’t want to open his or her eyes at all to the new reality.

Congress Off on Vacation. REALLY?

During the Weekend Update segment on Saturday Night Live, Seth Myers sometimes has a segment called “Really???”. He states some fact or some occurrence that seems just dumb or unbelievable and than follows with “Really????”

The Congress went on vacation without authorizing the FAA to operate. “REALLY????????”

Congress is out of town until after Labor Day.

Let’s stipulate the two houses disagree about the National Mediation Board issue. Fine. But nothing is going to get done the next five weeks anyway. Why not at least extend the authorization till they get back to town?  No one loses anything, they can resume the fight when they get back. But, as much sense as this makes, they didn’t do it. “REALLY???”

They didn’t authorize the FAA so 70,000 workers are in danger of losing their jobs building the infrastructure everyone seems to agree we need. “REALLY?????”

Nearly 3,000 FAA and private sector employees out of work at the FAA research center in Atlantic City.

They didn’t authorize the FAA so 4,000 employees at the agency will go at least six weeks without a paycheck, including many who will be in danger of not being able to pay rent or medical bills, all so Congress can go on vacation. “REALLY????”

We say we need infrastructure, but whole construction seasons are now lost that could easily have been saved. “REALLY?????”

There are times when this whole mess seems like a Saturday Night Live skit. But it is all too real. Our nation will fall further behind in building the infrastructure we need, NextGen is that much closer to being NeverGen and tens of thousands of people will lose their livelihoods. Really!

A Time Before Airports and the FAA

Just got back from visiting some airport members and in-laws. Also saw two dead presidents.

I got a lot of questions about FAA Reauthorization and about what it means for all of us if we can’t get the FAA authorized after four years of trying. No one out there understands this is the basic business of government and if Washington can’t authorize the FAA, what can it do?

Harding's Tomb

I thought of that when I visited Zachary Taylor and Warren Harding. Both men never heard of the FAA (good for them) and only Harding had ever heard of an airplane. Taylor had a country falling apart over slavery and other divisions (much tougher stuff than an artificial debt ceiling). He died after 16 months in office. My friend, the presidential historian Al Felzenberg tells me Taylor is underrated, as does Taylor’s biographer John Eisenhower. I think he would have found a way to keep the FAA running.

Warren Harding (his is the 30th presidential grave site I’ve visited) has little to recommend him (a friendly biography written by fellow Marion, OH native John Dean tries to be favorable but seems forced). One of the things he did accomplish, though, was the creation of the Bureau of the Budget, the predecessor of OMB. I don’t think they had these problems back then (in fact Harding’s whole cabinet was confirmed by the Senate on his first day in office).

I only have 8 more grave sites to visit. None of them ever heard of the FAA, or of a debt ceiling, for that matter. Some were good presidents (FDR, TR) and some were not (Fillmore, Pierce, Andrew Johnson). They all serve as a reminder that it doesn’t matter much what great speech you might give as a politician, because in the long run, as Keynes said, “we are all dead.”

What matters is getting on with it!