FAA Airport Development Program Turns 75

FAA Airport Development Program Turns 75
Thomas J. Smith
Published in: 

This May marks 75 years of the federal government providing grants-in-aid programs to build and enhance U.S. airport infrastructure; and the FAA Airport Improvement Program (AIP) is in its 40th year.

What we now know as AIP began in 1946 as the Federal-Aid Airport Program. Twin Falls, ID, was the first community to receive money from it when the Civil Aeronautics Authority provided $384,000 for the initial development of Joslin Field at Magic Valley Regional Airport.

Since that first award, the federal government has distributed about 82,300 grants worth $96 billion via three different programs. 

Tied to various congressional legislation and appropriations, federal investment in airports evolved from the Federal-Aid Airport Program, to the Airport Development Aid Program to the current Airport Improvement Program.

“Airport grants have existed in some form for the past 75 years, providing much-needed funding for airport infrastructure and development projects,” says FAA’s Acting Associate Administrator for Airports Winsome Lenfert. “Although the goal of ensuring the safe and efficient operation of the nation’s airports has never changed, the program itself continually evolves to keep pace with the growing importance of air transportation to the U.S. and the world.”

In the years prior to World War II, the federal government either provided funds directly to specific airports or through the Works Progress Administration projects.

The Federal-Aid Airport Program was the first peacetime program of financial aid aimed exclusively at promoting development of the nation’s civil airports. In 1947, Congress appropriated $45 million from the general treasury specifically for airport construction.

During the first 24 years of federal grants, the money was appropriated annually from general revenues. In total, FAA distributed $1.2 billion through the Federal-Aid Airport Program. But the funding didn’t keep pace with the rapid growth of air travel, and severe strains on the air traffic control system began emerging.

With the creation of the Airport Development Aid Program and the companion Planning Grant Program in 1971, monies were appropriated from the newly created Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which was funded by an assortment of user fees and taxes. Over the next decade, about $11 billion was invested in airport and airway modernization.

In the first five years of the Airport Development Aid Program, 85 new airports were built and more than 1,000 were improved, including the construction of 178 new runways.

The Planning Grant Program required a periodic assessment of the needs for the future of the U.S. aviation system. The first National Airport System Plan in 1973 forecasted a need for 700 new airports by 1983. The projected air traffic growth required an associated investment of an estimated $6.3 billion.

In 1982, when Congress reauthorized spending the aviation trust fund for airport grants, the two 10-year-old programs were consolidated into the Airport Improvement Program (AIP). The legislation also revamped the formulas used to award the grants. Since the creation of AIP, the federal government has distributed more than $90 billion in about 65,500 grants.

For many decades Congress has set an annual appropriation for the AIP grants. The current multi-year appropriation for AIP is more than
$3.1 billion per year.

In the last 75 years, federal grants have funded an ever-growing list of eligible projects. Major categories include safety projects such as lighting, signage, markings and navigational aids, and capital investments such as land acquisitions, runway construction and terminal renovations. Other eligible projects have included new parking lots, firefighting equipment, zero-emission vehicles, snow blowers, refueling and recharging stations, instrument landing systems and fencing.

Per the program’s guiding goals, AIP grants are issued to improve safety, security, airport infrastructure and environmental stewardship.

Typically, AIP grants cannot be used for routine airport operation expenses; and there has been only one major exception to that policy. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress directed AIP funds to be used to enhance airport security, including passenger and baggage screening. Airports were not only allowed use of AIP grants to purchase new security equipment but also to underwrite associated operating costs.

According to a March White House briefing document, President Joe Biden wants Congress to invest $25 billion in airports as part of a $2.3 trillion, 10-year infrastructure plan he is championing. The $25 billion would include funding for AIP, upgrades to FAA assets that ensure safe and efficient air travel, and a new program to support terminal renovations and multimodal connections to support affordable, convenient access to airports that does not involve individual cars.

As of late April, the administration had not released a specific figure about how much money would be earmarked for AIP.

Meanwhile, as FAA marks the 40th year of its banner program, a spokesperson says that the agency continues to move forward as it has every other year—just faster, bigger and bolder.

General Aviation

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