Get Ready For Holiday Travel

Kudos to TSA Administrator John Pistole for holding a press conference at Reagan National Airport Tuesday about the busy Thanksgiving holiday travel period that is less than a week away.  We have widely supported TSA’s risk-based security initiatives and I applaud the agency for proactively sharing how these initiatives help ensure, as he put it yesterday, “…effective security in the most efficient way.” Also that travelers should check the TSA website to make sure they understand the rules for liquids, aerosols and gels in their carry-on bags.

TSA Administrator John Pistole

I will be doing the same thing on behalf of the nation’s airports early next week through a series of TV and radio interviews. I’ll use those forums to discuss how airports are preparing for the high volume of anticipated traffic and inform the public about what they can expect at airports this holiday season.  America’s airports are prepared to meet the needs of holiday travelers and airports want passengers to have a great experience regardless of whether it’s Thanksgiving, the December holiday season, or any day of the year. The main message is to be prepared – check the airport, airline and TSA website to make sure you have all relevant information.  Also to pack your patience!

Airports are complex environments, with airlines, federal agencies, concessionaires and airport staff all responsible for different things.  But everyone is working together to make the travel experience safe, secure and whenever possible, convenient for passengers not only during the holidays, but throughout the year.

A key part of making the passenger experience enjoyable is reducing the wait time at the security checkpoint line or for processing international arriving passengers by CBP.  The key to success is for TSA and CBP to have adequate staffing to handle the millions of passengers who will travel not only during the holiday season but all year round. We are already experiencing problems at international airports so I am concerned about what might happen if Congress and the President don’t address the looming sequestration threat.  I am not alone – lots of people are concerned about the cuts we could see early in the new year.  Administrator Pistole was asked a question about that on Tuesday and he responded that “…the bottom line is to keep the frontline security operations in full force, to keep the movement of people and goods moving smoothly.”

Earlier in the press conference he emphasized how PreCheck and technology are helping to increase efficiency.  In facilitation we have Global Entry and pilot programs for Automated Border Control.  But there is more that needs to be done.  We also need better recognition that airports are a key driver of our economy, responsible for 8 percent of U.S. GDP and an estimated 7 percent of jobs.  They are critical for our global competitiveness.

Brookings study does a real service

A short time ago, I posted a guest blog on the National Journal transportation blog site,  the topic this week is on recent Brookings study on international air travel and our international airports. The study found them lacking due to the inability to invest in needed upgrades. More importantly, it spelled our a series of recommendations to fix the situation.

Here is my blog and my thoughts on two of the recommendations:

The Brookings study shines an important light on a key fact: that a very few airports support a great percentage of this country’s international traffic, even traffic that begins elsewhere. In an increasingly global economy we must make the best of this tremendous asset; our competitors are certainly doing so. Yet, we have a set of policies in this country that utterly fail to take this into account.

Happily, the Brookings study proposes two policy changes long championed by Airports Council International – North America that could make a big difference: making permanent the exclusion from alternative minimum tax of airport private purpose bonds and – most importantly – allowing airports to generate their own resources by removing artificial federal restraints on those airports.

In particular, this second tool is one that is used all over the world. Airlines and others like to point to places like Dubai and China and say they are investing in new facilities and we need to do the same. Yet, those places use exactly the tools that federal law prohibits here – a passenger user fee. In the United States, we largely rely in a system of government grants that is under severe pressure and the issuance of debt that can never be a long-term stand-alone strategy. The passenger user fee is severely limited, at the insistence of airlines who believe it gives airports too much control over their own future, and supported by the federal government, at least tacitly, which supports the current Washington-based system.

So, I believe the Brookings study does a real service in pointing out the importance of our international gateways and the fact that current policies hold them back. I do not think doubling down on Washington is the answer. And I also think we need to keep in mind that we have a system of airports in this country. If anything, the federal involvement should be re-oriented, and airports need to be able use the same tools in use by our competitors all over the world. It will help our economy, our communities and, I would argue, our airlines. If we do this, our international gateway airports will be able to do their part to undergird our national competitiveness.

Infrastructure Investment Is A Community Issue

Invited to participate in a National Journal blog, ACI-NA President Greg Principato today posted the following blog in an answer to this question: Can the link between consumers and infrastructure wonks be drawn more closely?

Unfortunately, in aviation as with many other industries, consumers may not have the best understanding of government policies that have a big impact on them or their communities. Earlier this year ACI-NA conducted national research that showed consumers don’t fully understand how airports are funded, but when educated, they largely support airport infrastructure investments.

A majority (61%) recognized the importance of airports to the economy, with 33% saying they are “extremely important” to their local economy, a finding that is consistent with a recent ACI-NA report that found that 10.5 million jobs and $1.2 trillion in spending were attributable to economic activity generated by the nation’s 490 commercial airports. But despite widespread public support, only one in four Americans were aware that the federal government has the power to limit how airport improvement funds are spent at the local level. Even fewer people (16%) know that general tax revenues are rarely used to fund commercial airports.

ACI-NA is working to change that and has recently launched a national public education campaign aimed at fostering awareness and understanding of the vital role that America’s commercial airports play in economic growth and job creation.

This is critically important because local communities need to come together to support improving airport infrastructure. The FAA projects that domestic passenger and cargo volumes will at least double over the next decade. To give you a frame of reference, in 2012 we expect 730 million people will travel through America’s airports. By 2024, we expect that number to swell to 1 billion people.

It’s a mistake to get too wonky on this issue because the most important thing for consumers is that their airports run efficiently and help to generate positive economic impacts in their communities. This point has been underscored by the pervasive political discussions regarding local and national elections–people want policies that will help create jobs and restore economic growth.  Well, vibrant airports are essential for communities as they seek to grow their employment base and attract new businesses. But we need to ensure that our airport infrastructure can continue to support the growth that it’s helping to create.

Airport infrastructure is not an aviation issue but a community issue and an economic development issue. We need to start talking in those terms so that Main Street understands their stake in airports being able to build and maintain effective modern infrastructure.

The entire discussion can be found online at the National Journal blog site.

As I have said and the Post now reports — airline baggage fees costing U.S. Treasury millions

I was thumbing through the Sunday Washington Post last night and came across an article in the Business Section called “Moneybags.”  I figured it was about hedge fund managers or Alex Rodriguez.  But it was about the bag fees and other fees charged by the airlines.  And not so much that the airlines charge those fees, but the fact that by doing so the Aviation Trust Fund is being shortchanged, with big implications for the future of the American air transportation system.

Now I have been one of those saying all along that airlines can charge whatever they want.  It is a deregulated system and if the customer will pay then, as long as everything is fairly disclosed, they can charge how they want.  That doesn’t always make me popular in some quarters.

But what I have also pointed out is that by moving to this model the system we have for funding aviation investments in this country is now broken and in need of reform.  And that if we don’t reform it then we will be short of the revenue we need to really implement NextGen and to fund capital improvements (if someone can show me how to do those things without money I am all ears.).  And NextGen is something the airlines all tell me they really want and need (count me skeptical on that score, but that’s another post).

At the same time, the fiscal cliff Congress has built as an incentive for a new debt deal looms and millions of people now know a new Washington term “sequestration.”  I wrote about this earlier this week in an AOL.com article.  All of these things conspire to push the implementation of NextGen; and efforts to build a 21st century aviation infrastructure, further into the future.

I have said it before.  Most of the aviation community understands these things and knows we need to address them.  The ACI-NA Board passed a resolution calling for a new National Aviation Policy to deal with them.  Included in this policy is rationalizing the tax and regulatory regime under which airlines operate.  It was not an “airport-only” resolution.  I think most of the aviation community agrees with this.  The only thing keeping us from dealing with it is the refusal of the airlines (as a group) to work with airports and discuss ways to modernize the system for financing airport infrastructure.  I truly hope that cooler heads will prevail and that we will be able to all work together to build the kind of air transportation system we all say we want; a system that will ensure a competitive future for a competitive nation.

A final note:  One of my real “Welcome to Washington” moments came right after I got here in 1979.  I was a 23 year old, freshly-minted, Senate staffer and was briefing my boss on the merits and demerits of a bill to bail out the Chrysler Corporation (yes, boys and girls, the issues don’t really change).  We got on a Senate elevator and I continued to talk.  I all of a sudden realized that the others on the elevator were all listening to me.  Their names were George McGovern, Frank Church and Birch Bayh.  All people I had grown up admiring.  The fact that they listened actually made me more confident; it was a real key moment.

So, I was saddened to learn yesterday that Senator McGovern had passed away.  Most of you know him as a failed presidential candidate, but he was so much more:  a hero of World War II, a dedicated public servant and a genuinely nice fellow.  He and Bob Dole worked closely together on programs to ensure that children and others in this country would have access to the food they would need.  He worked later in life with Jack Kemp on tort reform issues.  He was someone willing to work across the aisle with anyone who could help solve a problem.  One of the real ah ha moments I had (a series of moments, I guess) was seeing Senator McGovern in action, and also seeing Senator Barry Goldwater work (Sen. Goldwater’s office was right next to ours, talked to him a few times, another nice fellow and not the devil I was told he was when I was a kid).  The two of them represent, to many people, polar opposites in American political ideology.  But each was willing to work across the aisle.  Each wanted to legislate.  Hopefully they are getting together in the Senate in the sky and can help inspire today’s political leaders to look to a time when such things were possible.  Sen. George McGovern.  RIP.

As an Industry We Are United on Some Issues, But Airlines Won’t Agree with Us on Financing

I spent much of last week in Abu Dhabi, at the World Routes conference. There were 3,000 attendees, many of them airports and airlines looking for opportunities for new air service. Image

Part of the event was a two-day conference organized by the World Bank and the International Civil Aviation Organization. There were a lot of interesting things said during those two days, but two things stand out.  I will admit both were from the panel I participated on, but they were really points made by others.

During a conversation about how governments all over the world seem to lack a real understanding of the economic importance of aviation was the suggestion that airports just close for a day to show the economic importance of air transportation. I’ve heard this suggestion, made in frustration, by some of my own members – “Why don’t we just park a bunch of heavy equipment on the runway and close for a day.”  This shows two things.  First, that it is hard to imagine a modern economy without aviation.  Second, that frustration at governments not understanding it, or taking it for granted, is a global phenomenon.

Second was a colloquy I had with Jeff Poole from the International Air Transportation Association.  The next day Jeff left IATA to take another job in aviation, but he ended his distinguished IATA career by making an important statement.  Specifically, that it is important for all sectors of aviation to stick together, and that we will never overcome our frustration on point one, if we do not do a better job of hanging together.

This is a point that has been made by many others before here in the U.S.  Most famously, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) made this point in a widely noted speech at the Aero Club of Washington.  It is a critical, important, point.

Indeed, the U.S. aviation community is together on a variety of issues in a way I have not previously seen.  From airports to airlines to general aviation to labor to manufacturers, aviation groups see eye-to-eye on most things.  And, all share a frustration at the lack of understanding of the importance of aviation.

There is one exception. Specifically, the refusal of airlines to even work with airports on a way to bring the financing of airport infrastructure into the 21st century.  Some airlines understand this, but as a group there is no willingness to work this issue out.  This is the one issue holding the entire aviation industry back from answering the call of Jay Rockefeller, Jeff Poole and others.

Where the board of ACI-NA passed a resolution calling for a national aviation policy, A4A is calling for a national airline policy.  Fine.  But in the end, we all want mostly the same things.  And, if airports and airlines can work out differences on the financing of airport infrastructure, we can make great strides toward enacting the kinds of policies everyone, including airlines, want to ensure a strong competitive aviation industry.

But what holds it all back, for everyone in aviation, is one simple fact:  airlines as a group do not seem willing to engage on the subject of financing infrastructure.  We can accomplish so much as an industry hanging together, it just seems a shame that this one thing holds us back.

Bad Referring an Outrage; Why Doesn’t Bad Infrastructure Trigger Similar Outrage

I haven’t written in a while, largely due to all the time and energy I spent at our annual conference in Calgary.  This year’s meeting was terrific, what with the World conference co-located with ours and the terrific setting and hospitality provided by our hosts.  But I saw something in the paper that prompts me to write today.

Specifically, it was a story about the end of the NFL’s lockout of its game officials.  I followed this story because I love football (NY Giants Super Bowl Champs!!!) and because the president of the Referees Association, Scott Green, is a former colleague of mine on the staff of then-Sen. Joe Biden.  Scott is one of the more solid and disciplined people I’ve ever met, and he basically looks exactly the same as back in the 1980’s. Unlike yours truly.

The disputed call.

Anyway, what got my attention was that the lockout was settled after what was called “national outrage” about mistakes made by the replacements, especially in the recent Monday nighter between the Packers and Seahawks.  Even President Obama weighed in, as did dozens of other political figures from across the political spectrum.

Well, I’m delighted the lockout is over.  But I must admit to amusement over this “national outrage” that caused action.  I know a lot of people love football, and lots of them bet heavily on it.  So I understand their outrage. And I am glad to see that outrage can get action.

But it does raise a question.  Where is the outrage about other matters of more lasting importance?  How about outrage about the state of our infrastructure?  I have never heard ANYONE argue that our infrastructure is excellent.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think it is important.  But there is no outrage.  Or even, seemingly, widespread interest.  Every now and then there is a catastrophic failure.  But even in those cases, the outrage and concern last a week or two.

Our Airports for the Future campaign in the Salt Lake City airport.

I am glad public outrage brought the NFL’s plutocrats to their senses.  I wish we could bottle even 5 percent of that outrage and energy and focus it on infrastructure.  Our Airports for the Future initiative is a start.  Won’t you join us and help throw a flag on our outdated system for financing aviation infrastructure?  There is no one betting on any of this in Las Vegas.  But we are wagering our future as an economically competitive nation.

Visiting State Airport Councils

I’ve spent a lot of time traveling this summer; as have several ACI-NA staff.  Sure, some of it was vacation and some was family-oriented.  Some of it was to attend ACI-related meetings.

But a lot of it has been to attend state and regional airport and aviation meetings, to discuss the ACI-NA airport finance agenda and our Airports for the Future effort (www.airportsforthefuture.org).  I have been to the Florida Airports Council and the West Virginia Aviation Conference, and will be attending the New York Aviation Managers Association next month.  Debby McElroy has been to the California Airports Council, the Texas Commercial Airports Association meeting and the Mississippi meeting.  Jane Calderwood attended the Oklahoma meeting.

At the Florida Airports Council meeting earlier this summer.

We have gone to all of these in person.  This allows all of us to rub elbows with our members where they live, and also to meet with airport and other aviation stakeholders who may not be ACI-NA members but whose views are of critical importance as we seek to shape the future of aviation policy in this country.  These travels also provide strong evidence of the importance of air transportation to every region of this country.

All of these audiences understand that we need to change the way we do things in this country.  They understand that the current system is not adequate, that our competitors are moving ahead of us, and that some others in aviation seek to keep the system static because it serves their own interests.  It is true, there is not unanimous agreement on a certain specific way forward, but the general principles of a new aviation policy in this country are beginning to take shape.  I will have more to say about those principles in the weeks and months ahead.  In the meantime, please visit www.airportsforthefuture.org to learn more.

It needs also to be said that ACI-NA, through the efforts of our Canadian Airports Council office in Ottawa, is making a strong case for change in Canada as well.  We have gotten the attention of a Canadian Senate committee on the critical issues of the (lack of) competitiveness of Canadian airport policies and we are working together to change various security and facilitation policies on both sides of the North American border.  The imminent end of redundant bag re-screening and the Obama-Harper initiatives are evidence that this is taking hold.  And, to continue a theme, I will be speaking at a meeting of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association in late October.

Next week we at ACI-NA are off to Calgary for the ACI-NA and ACI World annual conferences, and hope to see many of you.  I will have more to say from there.