Frustrated, Relieved, Frustrated, Now Angry!

I spent last week in Salt Lake City at our CEO Forum.  Airport directors from all over the U.S. and Canada came together to meet, network, commiserate and discuss some of the top issues of the day.  The recently passed FAA Reauthorization bill was a hot topic.

When it passed I was at first enormously frustrated.  After all, the bill did nothing to empower localities to raise resources to invest in infrastructure as is done all over the world, and it cut the federal program.  It was frustrating to realize that, after years of work and having come so close to achieving a good bill, that this legislation just doubles down on our current flawed system was the best we could get.

Then I was relieved.  Relieved that airports and the FAA would not have to endure any more temporary extensions.  Relieved that a bill had passed with some ACI-NA backed provisions, including liability protection for SMS data and a provision permitted expansion of the TSA Screening Partnership program.

Then frustrated again. Knowing that there is no reason this couldn’t have passed earlier with much better provisions providing invectives to invest in infrastructure. No reason, that is, except for the dysfunction of our current political system.

All that, though, is replaced today by anger.  Seething anger.

The administration released its budget today.  It calls for an increase in the cap on the passenger facility charge and a large cut in the airport improvement program.  You might ask why I am angry.  After all, I wrote to the congressional super committee last year suggesting they consider an increase in the PFC which might allow a decrease in federal spending and perhaps taxes.  A group of large airports wrote a similar letter a few weeks later.  Isn’t this what I had suggested?

NO, it is not.  If the administration was serious about promoting investment in aviation infrastructure it would have made a serious proposal during consideration of the FAA authorization.  After all, the authorization had been pending every hour of every day this administration has been in office.  NEVER ONCE, in the context of the consideration of this legislation, did the administration weigh in on these subjects in a meaningful way.  If they had, we might have a system today that permits localities the ability to raise more of their own resources, while permitting the consideration of changing the federal program.  But, NO.  All that time, just silence.

Only in the context of a budget submission did the administration make this proposal.  To be fair they suggested the same last year. But anyone who has been around long enough sees this for what it is:  proposing a change in policy they are not really prepared to fight for, in this case a PFC cap increase, to dress up a budget proposal that allows a billion dollar cut.  This is an old budget trick, perfected by David Stockman 30 years ago.

In the end, the PFC proposal will be treated as unserious.  But the AIP cut proposal will be seized on by the Hill.  The recently passed FAA bill will result in less investment in aviation infrastructure.  This budget may result in even less than that!  What a joke.

My aviation industry colleagues like to talk about how we need to invest more in aviation, and that the system is outdated and leaves us behind our overseas competitors.  Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Airlines, wrote in a recent Hemisphere magazine article, that other nations have enlightened aviation policies and the U.S. has a benighted one.  I agree.  And this budget submission, especially when combined with the disappointing FAA bill just passed, leaves us further behind.  It is a real shame, and it did not have to be this way.

Skip Conrad

Before ending, I wanted to say something about a friend of mine, and of many in our industry, Skip Conrad.  Normally I might not write something like this in a blog such as the one I just wrote.  But having known Skip as someone who liked to, as they say, “call timeout on B.S.” I’d like to think he would approve.

Skip worked at the Oakland Airport.  For many in the commercial, concessions and properties end of the airport business, Skip was a pioneer and a mentor.  He helped change the way airports look at every end of the commercial part of the business.  One colleague tells me that many of the concessions trends of the past 30 years were really conceived and promoted by Skip.

I participated in a meeting last September in Portland of the Western Regional Airport Property Managers.  Almost every minute I was there I saw the other attendees gathering around Skip.  This was a generally younger crowd of airport professionals.  I joked with Skip that he and I were the oldest people there, by far.  But every minute, I saw people around him.  I think this was because he was the kind of person who gave off energy that people could feed from.  I think it was because his passion was contagious.  I think it was because, while he was usually the oldest person in the room (we established that he was a little older than me), his ideas were among the youngest and freshest.

I doubt Skip ever said something should be done “because we’ve always done it that way.”  Skip left a mark, not just by the ideas and innovations he championed, but through all the people he mentored.

A few weeks after that meeting in Portland, Skip found out he had cancer and the prognosis was not good.  No one knows what they would do in such a situation.  What Skip did was re-dedicate himself, as if it were even possible, to his work and to his family.  He died a week ago Saturday while on the way back from an Italian vacation with his wife.

I know all of us will miss Skip’s presence.  But we will never forget his example, we will continue to feed off his energy, and all those he mentored and helped teach will be improving our industry for decades to come.

Skip Conrad.  RIP.

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