U.S. Infrastructure Challenges

Greg Principato
Published in: 

Greg Principato

Greg Principato is president of ACI-NA, an association of airports and airport-related businesses that enplane nearly all passenger airline and cargo traffic on the continent.

Significant accomplishments during Principato's 30+ years in aviation and transportation infrastructure include working on the negotiation of a new air service agreement between the United States and Japan and helping develop a new global standard for aircraft noise.

There are few issues on which Democrats and Republicans agree in these politically charged times, but the need to improve our infrastructure seems to be one of them. Airport projects are proven job-creators that increase the safety and security of the aviation system. They also improve the efficiency of air travel and generally make it a better experience for passengers.

The 2011 Capital Needs Survey by Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) documented $80.1 billion in needed capital investment for U.S. airports from 2011 to 2015. That's about $16 billion per year. And we're not alone in highlighting the deficiencies of our aviation system. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave aviation a "D" on its Infrastructure Report Card. The organization found a $40.7 billion shortfall in aviation infrastructure funds over the next five years and noted: "Travelers are faced with increasing delays and inadequate conditions as a result of the long overdue need to modernize the outdated air traffic control system and the failure to enact a federal aviation program."

It is clear that "funding needs" significantly exceed available "funding options" at U.S. airports. The short-term outlook is of grave concern, as the political and economic climate in Washington, D.C., likely means no increase in the passenger facility charge and a possible reduction of Airport Improvement Program grants in FY 2012.

ACI-NA has both short-term and long-term approaches to help airports modernize and expand their infrastructure. Put simply, we need to make the existing system work as well as possible for now and develop a better, more sustainable system for the future.

Right now, ACI-NA is working hard to keep AIP funding at its current $3.5 billion level and ensure that airports are included in any infrastructure/jobs package that may be passed by Congress. We are also working with the FAA to remove the regulatory impediments that add unnecessary costs or complexity to airport projects. We continue to work with the FAA to implement our suggested improvements in the AIP and PFC process, filed earlier this year in response to President Obama's regulatory review. We also submitted comments on the FAA's proposed rewrite of the AIP handbook and offered specific recommendations on improving its "internal" Safety Management Systems program. 

The more fundamental question is: What is the best system to finance U.S airport infrastructure over the long term? It is clear that the old financial model is broken beyond repair, and we need to rethink the overall policy framework for airport finance. The FAA shutdown should be proof positive we cannot rely on the old policies. Many in the industry have talked about more economic freedom for U.S. airports for a long time. But what does that really mean? 

ACI-NA is proud to lead an industry effort over the next four months to help our airport and associate members develop a sustainable airport funding process that will allow airports to make necessary infrastructure improvements. Now more than ever, though, the devil truly is in the details. The U.S. airport community will have to honestly confront policy differences and make some very difficult decisions. My goal is for the process to be thorough enough to allow everyone a say, but not so cumbersome as to delay actually reaching a decision. We hope to have agreement on the airport financing policy proposal in February 2012.

There are literally billions of dollars ready to invest in airports - non-governmental dollars that can be leveraged if we do this correctly. A new policy could be a real game-changer. But make no mistake: Removing federal restrictions on U.S. airports and letting them take charge of their own economic lives won't be easy.

I know we are up for the challenge, and I look forward to working with you on this important project.

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