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!

As We Kick Our Asses, Time for New Thinking

I was thinking a little more about my last blog about how we are getting a self-inflicted ass kicking in the global economy when it comes to our investment in critical infrastructure and how, if we were designing a system today we would NEVER, ABSOLUTELY NEVER, design it the way it is today.  Not for aviation and not for surface.  NEVER!!!

I was thinking about Steve Van Beek’s thoughtful response to my comments on this subject.  I was thinking about how NO ONE is seriously out there saying we have the best system for financing any of this infrastructure.  I was also thinking about the fact that so many of our global competitors are, in reality, starting with a blank sheet of paper and we are not much further along right now, given our political paralysis, than we were when Henry Clay and James Madison were talking about whether investing in “internal improvements” was even constitutional back in the 1810’s (Clay said yes, Madison, the author of the Constitution, was for it before he was against it).

“A country that is kicking itself in the ass doesn’t usually notice the obvious.”

I was also thinking about all the political pressures in Washington that exist today, and how there is so much centrifugal force.  I was thinking what if we did something bold and really designed a system that would promote investment?  And then, I thought about all the benefits that would bring, from making our nation more competitive to creating jobs.  From lowering federal spending to lowering federal taxes.  From reducing our national debt to getting Washington out of matters that are best left to localities.  By removing the Nixon-era federal financial shackles from local communities and their airports, we could do so much good and kick some real political ass in the meantime.  Make the Tea Party happy and make the liberals happy – on ALL sides.

So I wrote to the President, the Vice President and the Congressional leadership and told them that (no, I didn’t use the “A” word).  This seems so obvious.  But then, a country that is kicking itself in the ass doesn’t usually notice the obvious.  Let’s work to make this time different.

Funding the Transportation System

I was reading this morning’s Washington Post, which carried an article on page A2 about congressional plans to slash investment on highway and transit programs.  The article also mentioned identified needs in the U.S. for investment in those modes, and in aviation as well (full disclosure, there was a reference to a report last year by a group convened by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-chaired by former Transportation Secretaries Norm Mineta and Sam Skinner and consisting of 80 experts – I was one of the 80).

Regardless of what you think about how we raise and invest funds for transportation in this country, try this little exercise.

First, if you were starting right now with a blank sheet of paper to design a system, ask yourself whether you would design the one we have now.   For both aviation and surface transportation, the answer must be a resounding NO!

You wouldn’t design a system that relied on taxing a product (gasoline) that drivers are working hard to use less of and cars being built are consuming less of.  You also would probably not design a system in which so much of the money flows through Washington.  You’d probably rely more on public-private partnerships, tolling, and other such methods.  Perhaps a vehicle miles traveled system.  But we have the system we have, and there seems a lack of political will to change it.

On the aviation side, we have a federal program that is based on the base fare of a ticket.  Airlines, though, have moved to ancillary fees which are not subject to the ticket tax; a move that seems permanent.  On top of that and making matters much, much,  worse, federal law prohibits airports from raising the funds necessary to build and maintain their own facilities.  This is a law that was passed when Nixon was president and the federal government told airlines where they could fly and how much they could charge.  I repeat, this system was enshrined when RICHARD NIXON WAS PRESIDENT.  It was designed even before that unfortunate moment when leisure suits were fashionable (I owned a really sweet light blue one!)  We still had some troops in Vietnam.  Back when we had wage and price controls (how did THAT work out?!)  I could go on.  You would NEVER design such a system if you were starting today from scratch, and almost every honest airline executive would, in private, tell you the same thing.

Let that sink in:  the system by which we regulate the economic lives of your community’s airport was designed when Richard Nixon was president!!!!!!!  Maybe this is one he delegated to Spiro Agnew?

Second, ask yourself what our global competitors are doing.  I have been convinced since I worked in state government a quarter century ago that we live in a global economy and our competitors are not just across the street but on the other side of the world.  It was just announced today that Dubai is investing almost $8 billion in airport infrastructure.  China is building dozens of new airports and airports all over Asia outshine ours by a considerable degree.  This is critical; as businesses increasingly have the choice to locate anywhere in the world they would like and as the cost and ease of transportation figures more heavily in those decisions, we are stuck in the horse and buggy age while our competitors are owning and building the 21st century.

If you are honest, I doubt you could ask yourself these two questions and come up with a different answer.    We are getting our asses kicked, and we are the ones doing the kicking.  This is a self-inflicted wound and as long as government policy makes methods used to finance airport infrastructure all over the world illegal, we will keep getting our asses kicked.

Small Airports and Environment Conference

Earlier this week I was in Cincinnati, Ohio attending our joint Small Airports and Environment conferences.

The men and women who run North America’s smaller airports are a diverse lot. Some are on their way to senior management at large airports, but increasingly many of them make their careers at smaller facilities. There are many reasons for this; a big reason being that running a smaller facility, with much smaller staff, is a way for these airport professionals to remain directly engaged in all aspects of airport operations. Indeed, we ran sessions on issues such as environment, security, safety, concessions management and social media. These topics are all covered at some of our specialty conferences but often the smaller airports can’t send (or don’t have) staff to all these other events. That is why we provide this program specially geared to smaller airports.

During my first several years in this job, I spent a lot of time dealing with environmental issues. For various reasons, including a change in the national political climate (not the climate change pun), I spend much less time on them now (in contrast to my counterpart at ACI Europe, where environmental concerns including climate change, remain at the top of the list).  But that does not mean they are less important. Indeed, nothing can slow airport development faster than environmental concerns, which is a reason our industry has been so proactive on environmental issues. It is also worth noting that the U.S. EPA is considering several initiatives that could drastically increase the cost of airport development and operations with no real environmental impact. We have worked, and are working hard to shape the outcome of that work and I will have more to say in the months ahead.

I did hear a very interesting anecdote yesterday; there have actually been emergency calls placed by people who have seen planes flying overhead but couldn’t hear them and assumed the engines were out. Aircraft noise remains a tough political issue, in many ways made tougher by the advances in technology that have reduced real noise but not perceived noise.

Tomb of William Henry Harrison

Before leaving Cincinnati, I joined my brother (who lives in the area) for a trip to the grave site of William Henry Harrison, our 9th president and the 28th presidential grave site I’ve visited. He was president for only one month, having caught pneumonia while delivering the longest inaugural speech in history (2 1/2 hours). Yes, he almost literally talked himself to death!