U.S. Airports, Airlines Need to Further Invest in Infrastructure

I’ve been back from Singapore for a week.  Two things stick out.  One, it is a bit harder to recover from these trips now than even just a couple of years ago.  Two, when I said in Denver at Airport Cities that our competitors were moving forward building new, more modern and efficient infrastructure, and we were being left behind; well, I was even more right than I knew at the time.

So many people came up to me at the ACI Asia-Pacific meeting who had either read or heard the Denver speech, or heard me ask a question of one of the speakers that made the same points.  They confirmed that this is what is happening.  If we do not think that these airport leaders around the world do not have global aspirations, we are deluding ourselves.  And I can’t say they are unhappy that policies in the United States hold us back while they move forward.  On the way over I read Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book “Strategic Vision.”  He makes the same point in that book.

U.S. carriers tend to think that if it is new and shiny then it is too expensive and they shouldn’t pay for it.  I think they are, usually, shortsighted in this; I think their interests are better served by newer and more efficient infrastructure.  But at least I understand it, on a basic level.  What I do not understand is the U.S. Government, both executive and legislative branch, not really understanding this.  Henry Kissinger is fond of saying the role of a statesman is to represent the future to the present.  This is not being done right now in the United States on aviation infrastructure.

It has been a sad couple of weeks in aviation.  Andy Steinberg, who served as FAA general counsel and U.S. D.O.T. Assistant Secretary, died on May 20 at the young age of 53.  Andy oversaw the critically important negotiations that led to an open skies agreement with the European Union, a rare example in the past few years where a statesman did represent the future to the present.  He also worked for American Airlines when, in 1993, they won a landmark predatory pricing case.  That case was decided during the deliberations of the Baliles Commission; I recall it was one we had our eye closely on.  That case had a major impact on the business of aviation.  Andy was also the one who recruited me to join the board of the International Aviation Club a few years ago.  Jeff Shane, for whom I have the utmost regard says that Andy was “one of the greatest aviation lawyers of his generation.”  Andy Steinberg, R.I.P.

Ernie Boston was a member of the Pasco, Washington, airport commission for 17 years.  He was an active and constant presence in the ACI-NA Commissioners Committee; always sitting in the front, asking questions and greeting other attendees.  He was a sweet man, a real gentleman.  He cared a great deal about his airport and about the industry.  His background was in real estate and he long ago saw the potential of this for the business health of the airport.  Ernie was very active in all manner of civic and economic development activities in his town; he knew that the airport is an economic engine and was determined to make the best of it.  Ernie was a great guy and I will miss him.  Ernie Boston, R.I.P.

When I was a senior at Notre Dame, our school had one of the great sports years in NCAA history to that time.  The football team won a national championship (the QB was Joe Montana) and the basketball team went to the Final 4 (the soccer team I played on went 16-1-1 but no one talks much about that J).  A key presence on that basketball team was a freshman named Orlando Woolridge.  That guy could move and he could jump.  There were other perhaps better known names on that team (Bill Laimbeer and Kelly Tripuka for instance) but he was key to the success of that team, and a lot of fun to watch.  He went on to a nice NBA career, averaging 16 points per game and coached in the WNBA  He died over the weekend of a heart ailment and I was very sad to hear about it.  Orlando Woolridge, for helping make senior year so memorable, R.I.P.

Thoughts on security (and Notre Dame)

Some random thoughts, not all security related: 

Current law stipulates that TSA look for explosives at the checkpoint. Regardless of your views on the machines or patdowns, that’s what they are doing. Considering current law, what other alternatives are there? 

What if they were NOT doing this and there was another, more successful, attempt to blow up a plane in flight?  What kind of discussion would we be having? 

I do think it is time to re-visit the basic security laws now that we have almost a decade of post-9/11 experience.  

Those who exploit this for political gain should not be taken seriously. 

Those who invoke the specter of sexual abuse victims (such as the Business Travel Coalition did) to criticize the new procedures are disgusting and contemptible.  I say that as someone close to someone who was a victim.  

John Pistole is a real professional. A pro’s pro.
Let’s keep all those protecting us, from military and intelligence people in the field to the TSA folks in our airports and local law enforcement, in our thoughts this Thanksgiving. 

Notre Dame half-time show in Yanke Stadium

Notre Dame half-time show in Yanke Stadium

Finally, I went to the Notre Dame-Army game at Yankee Stadium this past Saturday. That place is awesome. It looks and feels much more like the REAL old Yankee Stadium than did that post-1973 edifice that was torn down 2 years ago. Brought back great memories of going with my dad in the 60’s and early 70’s to see the Giants.


I hope you all have a great Thanksgiving!


Climate change and soccer from Manchester

I’m writing from Manchester, England, site of the 2009 ACI Europe annual meeting. We also held an ACI-NA board meeting here. The ACI-NA and Europe boards meet together every year, alternating sides of the Atlantic. 

Manchester is a very lively city, probably partly due to the fact that there are three universities here. And, a lot of very nice pubs. 

Two college soccer goalkeepers at Old Trafford - Mark Reis, Seattle's airport director, and myself.

Two college soccer goalkeepers at Old Trafford - Mark Reis, Seattle's airport director, and myself.

A highlight was the social event last night at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United and one of the most iconic sports venues in the world. A real thrill for a former college soccer player. 

The joint board meeting, naturally, focused heavily on how airports are responding to the financial crisis. It is always interesting to see how much airports have in common, regardless of where in the world they might be. Other issues included security, especially liquids and gels, and environment, especially climate change. 

On the first day of the ACI Europe conference, the organization launched its new carbon accreditation system, which includes 32 airports. This is the result of two years of work by ACI Europe airports and staff. Political pressure on climate change in Europe is hard to overstate and this effort is a laudable one. 

Showing that no good deed goes unpunished, however, protestors came into the meeting shouting “your time is over!” and releasing balloons. It did not hamper the ceremony, but it was a sign of the times in Europe. A responsible transportation organization makes a bold move and even so there are protests. We have a chance to stay ahead of this in North America and we need to do so. Along those lines, the ACI-NA board also adopted a policy statement on climate change. 

Even so, the economic crisis overwhelms every other issue in the various meetings and hallway discussions; it is keenly felt here.

The President and Notre Dame

President Obama is getting a lot of attention this week for the commencement addresses he will make. 

He spoke last night at Arizona State, which famously declined to give him an honorary degree saying his body of work is not complete yet (do only dead people get honorary degrees there?)  He turned it into a joke, promising never again to pick against ASU in his NCAA hoops bracket. 

The university's Golden Dome.

The university's Golden Dome.

Most of the attention, though, is directed at my alma mater, Notre Dame.  A front page story in the Washington Post yesterday really got my attention. It talked about all sorts of protestors coming out of the woodwork to protest and disrupt graduation ceremonies this weekend. This is also a sore subject with me since I am spending much of this month at my own sons’ graduations and know how special these occasions are. 

Every U.S. president since Gerald Ford has received an honorary degree from Notre Dame. (There is a neat video montage of these speeches on the ND website.) Presidents like going there, for obvious reasons, and the students there benefit by hearing from presidents.  I was privileged to be in the audience as a student in the mid-70s when President Ford received his honorary degree and spoke (it was on a St. Patrick’s Day as I recall).  President Carter spoke to the graduating class right before mine; our speaker the following year was William F. Buckley who delivered a rebuttal to Carter’s speech (Carter’s Notre Dame speech was the famous “inordinate fear of communism” speech).  Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush have all spoken there.  Of those previous six, three were pro-life and three were pro-choice.  

We are talking about the president of the United States.  Any university would be privileged to have a president speak and no university worthy of being called a university would sort through presidents using some sort of scorecard.  And I am not a religious scholar, but I do recall that Jesus honored people from all walks of life and with all kinds of issues in their past. 

I am as honored that the president is speaking at my alma mater (and I have felt the same about ALL of the previous six) as I am appalled that so many are using my alma mater as a whipping post for their political agenda. 

I said before that I am not a religious scholar, but allow me to quote from someone who is:  my old classmate, roommate and friend, R. Scott Appleby, a professor at Notre Dame:  “People are weary of it,” Scott said.  “I certainly feel this is not the best way to respect life.  It makes the cause a circus.” 

That sums it up.  Regardless of how you feel about abortion, or stem cell research or any other issue, reasonable people have different views and a university is a good place to discuss and debate them.  But hijacking a graduation and turning it into a circus is not the way to go.

Irish football, cheap gas and what about an energy policy

I went up to Baltimore last Saturday to see the Notre Dame – Navy game.  It turned out to be a typical ND-Navy game, hard fought right to the end.  It featured monsoon-like rains in the fourth quarter and two straight successful onside kicks for Navy, the kind of thing that only happens in the movies.  Greg Principato - ACI-NA PresidentLuckily for my Irish, we held them off.

The second most interesting thing I saw in Baltimore was gasoline for sale for $1.97 per gallon.  That’s a price that seemed impossible just a few months ago (I wonder what happens now with all those car dealers who promised someone who bought their car that they’d have gas for $2.99 per gallon for a full year.  Certainly over the summer, $2.99 seemed like a good price).

Anyway, it got me to thinking about a point I have made in this space before.  When oil was selling at more than $140 per barrel, it just seemed certain that this country would finally make those hard decisions necessary to not only achieve energy independence, but also to develop alternative sources of energy and other technologies and an energy policy worthy of the name.  The sort of thing that had been promised so many times before, and then was forgotten when prices came back down.

But as the price came down these past three months, first below $4, then below $3.50, then below $3, $2.50 and now, in some places, below $2, it seems almost like the idea of a real energy policy has disappeared into thin air.

If we let that happen, we will deserve what we get the next time prices spike, probably to $200 per barrel or more.  I’m no economist, but I am old enough to know that the recessions of the early 1970’s, the late 70’s and early 80’s, early 90’s and now 2008 were (and are) all accompanied by fuel price spikes.  I’m sure someone has written an academic book about why this is so; but all I have to go on are my own eyes.  It is undeniable that fuel price spikes and hard economic times go together like peanut butter and jelly.  By the way, if you look at those periods of history, they are came with enormous national security challenges.  It is all intertwined.

When will we learn?  If we don’t learn this time, when will we learn?  Certainly, in our industry, the impact of fuel prices is more than acute and lasts long past that time when prices retreat to what seem like more normal levels.

I watched President-elect Obama’s interview the other night on 60 Minutes. Steve Kroft asked him about this, and whether the lower prices have made the need to move on energy less important.  The President-elect’s answer was the right one:  he said that it has never been more important and that we can’t be lulled into a false sense of security on this because prices have come down some.  Music to my ears, and I hope he is able to make progress on this important issue.

In the end, the important issue really isn’t price alone.  It involves prices for sure, it also involves availability, it involves the environmental impacts, it involves national security, it involves business confidence, and it involves a whole host of things.  Oil price spikes are an indicator that bad times are upon us.  But the challenge isn’t just to avoid spikes, it is to develop and implement a real national energy policy that makes oil price spikes irrelevant.

I will be traveling to Panama later this week to attend the ACI-Latin America/Caribbean annual conference and look forward to reporting on events and trends from that fast growing region.