Common Sense Needed

I just returned from St. Louis, which, as you know, suffered terrible damage when a tornado literally ripped through the airport and its terminal several months ago.  You can still see places where severe damage was caused and work remains to be done.  But overall, when you visit and walk through the airport to get your flight, it is almost as if nothing ever happened.  Airport leaders and staff are really terrific at dealing with such incidents, events that are not in any airport manager’s handbook.

I have also thought a lot about that topic in recent days in the wake of stories of the plane stuck on the tarmac at Hartford for several hours during a recent freak Fall snowstorm.

While news stories focus on what happened on the ground, the real story – and the real solution – lies with what happens in the air.  The seeds for the problems that day were sown long before the planes landed.  Hartford has 22 gates.  There were 28 plans diverted there that day, in addition to any planes already scheduled to be there.  In addition, the staff was working hard to keep the runway and taxiway clear of a foot of snow.  At the same time, there were other airports in the region that had much better weather and plenty of room and would have been able to handle some of those planes (7 of them declared fuel emergencies to land at Hartford, not much you can do about that).  As Ralph Kramden might have said, it was two pounds of bologna in a one pound bag.

The key here, as I wrote in USA Today not long after the incident, is for the FAA, airlines and airports to learn from this and work to come with a way to better handle and distribute these diversions.  Hartford had a plan, but it was overwhelmed by what unfolded.  There is much to learn and there are solutions.  What we do not need is folks trying to use the incident to gain attention, what we do need is people to roll up their sleeves and develop those common sense solutions.  We do not need press conferences, we need the work to be done, and we need better communication most of all.

It must have been awful to be on one of those planes that day.  It need not have happened.  We need to learn why it happened and put solutions in place.  We are committed to rolling up our sleeves and participating in that effort.

The Shutdown Viewed from the Heartland

Sometimes when things are really intense in Washington it is good to spend time outside the Beltway to see and feel what’s going on in the country.  That’s what I’ve been doing this week.

I began the week in Lexington, Ky., visiting with their excellent airport director Eric Frankl and having a chance to see their beautiful airport. Tuning in to both the national and local media it was plain that the FAA shutdown is an important story outside the Beltway. People are concerned about the jobs and the implications for our national transportation system. They have many questions, many about safety. (I always assure them that the safety of the system is being maintained, while also pointing out that many of the cancelled projects would have safety benefits  It is also a good chance to point out that these projects are paid for from dedicated revenue and that shutting down the FAA does not cut the deficit.)

Wes Hargis, Inside Tucson Business

I was in Lexington when my blog about the airlines raising fares to include the amount that would have been covered by the temporarily suspended ticket tax was posted. It generated a lot of comment, especially when on Monday night, the Los Angeles Times did a piece on it.

So, on Tuesday morning when I was touring the Louisville airport with their veteran airport director, Skip Miller, the blog came up in several conversations, including during a tour the great folks at UPS gave me of their operations center. The subject came up not just during the tour, and not just because of the blog.  It is clear that the FAA is a concern of a number of people; it is also clear that no one “out here” understands why or how we could have come to this point. The FAA should be the basic business of government and to not have it authorized seems hard to understand.

I am in Champaign, Ill., now, visiting my wife’s family (they are a four-generation University of Illinois family).  Yesterday, I was on a local station here, WDWS 1400, as part of a daily talk show, Penny for Your Thoughts, with a local broadcast legend, Jim Turpin.  Jim was the broadcaster for Illinois sports teams for more than three decades and still does a daily, two-hour talk show. We had a wide-ranging discussion and a number of callers. We talked about the FAA shutdown, also about security and a number of other important topics. The shutdown has been covered here in the local press.

To be honest, many people wonder if we can’t even keep the FAA open, what hope do we have for a solution on the debt crisis (by the way, I recommend a piece written on the CNN web site by Fareed Zakaria about the debt limit and how it is a crisis of our own making). After 20 extensions, I was pretty sure we’d seen everything. Turns out, that was just the pre-game show.

We at ACI-NA have been very active these past several days working with our members to collect stories about the impact of the shutdown and getting that message to the Hill and to the press. We also use the opportunity to talk about the wonders performed by airports on a daily basis and what could be possible if we remove the Nixon-era economic shackles placed on airports by federal law. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is famous for saying never let a good crisis go to waste.  The FAA shutdown never should have happened, but we are using the “opportunity” to tell the airport story and set the stage for better days to come.

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!