The U.S. government needs to change the way airports are funded before domestic airline infrastructure lags even further behind the rest of the developing world, according to Greg Principato, former president of Airports Council International - North America.
In a blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations' website, he laid out a path for increased infrastructure spending that would necessitate eliminating the constricting federal grant program for the largest 30 airports and raising the meager passenger ticket tax, which is capped by the federal government. Principato doubling the tax, from which airports generate development dollars, from $4.50 to $8.50. These first changes should be made by 2016, he wrote, and expanded to the next 20 largest airports by 2018.
After decades of investment in creating the world’s best aviation infrastructure, the United States has stopped making transportation a priority, he said.
"Anyone flying from Singapore to New York's JFK can see the difference," Principato said. "Hong Kong has become the world's leading cargo airport, and Beijing [or maybe Dubai] will soon become the world's busiest for passengers. Their airports are more modern, more efficient, and, yes, more pleasant. Our competitors are positioning themselves to be the transportation hubs of the 21st century global economy, while we remain positioned to dominate the 20th."
According to Principato, the federal funding arrangement, which is a mix of bonds and passenger ticket fees that are very constrictive, pleases no one.
"Airports chafe under the passenger user fee limit, but then argue only for a slightly higher limit,” he wrote. “If an airport and its stakeholders want to do a certain project and finance it a certain way, then it should be of no concern to the federal government."
Principato called for these additional changes:
- By 2020, the 30 largest U.S. airports would be removed from municipal governance and converted to a corporate form of governance. Principato wrote that each community would be able to decide which is best for its own situation.
- Airports outside the 30 largest that left the federal program would have until 2025. Once this is done, federal rules limiting passenger fees would be eliminated, and airports would also be able to make more competitive decisions on their retail and food and beverage offerings. Principato claims that this model has proven effective worldwide, and would enhance cooperation between airports and airlines.
Principato's final proposal is for the nation's current "inefficient and costly" system of taxes and fees that fund aviation infrastructure to be reformed. He calls on the Secretary of Transportation to appoint a joint stakeholder/government panel to recommend reforms for when the FAA is reauthorized in 2015.
Principato noted the sharp edge and attitude adopted by the United States' competitors — while every other country strives to compete in a global economy, the United States does not, he wrote.
"We govern and finance the U.S. aviation system the same way we did when the goal was simply flying people around our own country, at a time when the federal government set routes and fares,” he wrote. “International travel was a small slice, and U.S. carriers dominated.”
In his blog post, Principato acknowledged what some may see as extreme or impractical measures. But, he warns that taking no action, and fighting the same battles is no longer good enough.
"We will no longer be a hub of international activity. Cargo will flow through other places, taking with it the businesses and services that locate in such hubs. International travelers will increasingly avoid the United States, first for connections and then to even visit at all. Our airlines, which once led the world, will be reduced to feeders for the big international players of the future. If you don't believe this can happen, ask anyone old enough to remember when Pan Am and TWA dominated international travel. Other countries have managed this because they better understand the role of air transportation in the global economy. Why can't we?"