Trump Calls For Modernizing America's Airports. How Do We Pay For It?
Are America's airports obsolete? The president thinks so. We talked to airport executives about renovations and expansions underway, whether those projects are enough, and what's preventing more improvement.
President Donald Trump met with U.S. airline and airport executives last Thursday at the White House to discuss how to fix aging airport infrastructure. In video released by C-SPAN, the president began by congratulating the heads of airlines for working well despite the “bad equipment” given to them by American airports. While the Trump administration has yet to outline plans to fix this supposed problem, numerous airports around the country are already modernizing.
America’s airports have over $100B in infrastructure needs over the next five years, according to Airports Council International — North America. Rob Wigington, ACI-NA member and president and CEO of the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, attended the White House meeting last week.
“The session was a productive and informative exchange and gave us the chance to express our concerns and advocate for improving aging airport infrastructure … There is much work to be done to improve airport infrastructure across the U.S,” he said.
Nashville’s airport, which broke ground last month on its BNA Vision campaign, anticipates it will handle 20 million passengers annually by 2035. The $1.2B upgrade is seen as a necessity, as the facility struggles to handle its 13 million passengers each year. Once the "vision" is complete, the airport will have a new international arrivals facility, expanded concourses, an on-site hotel and room for a transit connection to downtown Nashville.
However, not everyone believes the state of America’s airports is as grim as the president portrays.
“First of all, we do not have a decrepit and decaying airport system. You can’t tell me that Boston Logan or the Seattle airport is Third World,” said Michael Boyd, president of aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International.
New York’s LaGuardia Airport — referenced as “Third World” by both Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on separate occasions — awaits its first major renovation in 50 years. However, Logan Airport in Boston is well into a modernization campaign to boost capacity and continue its record-setting growth. Massport, the airport’s operator, claims the facility has spent more than $4B in the last decade to upgrade its facilities and has plans to break ground on a four-gate expansion to its international terminal by 2018. Terminal B will also get some TLC, as American Airlines consolidates into space used by the former US Airways and 75k SF is added in an overall renovation.
On the West Coast, the Port of Seattle has $2B in near-term modernization projects at its Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. A $660M expansion of its international arrivals building will double the gates capable of handling wide-body aircraft. A facelift to Sea-Tac’s North Satellite should be complete by 2021 and will expand the facility by 201k SF and increase the number of gates from 12 to 20.
As for airports that are just beginning to modernize their aging facilities, finding funding can be tricky. Boyd said the best way forward is to allow airports to raise the Passenger Facility Charge, which has remained $4.50/passenger for 16 years. This tightly controlled user fee cannot be diverted for uses beyond airport improvement. The revenue is so hawkishly guarded that when New York officials looked to build a train from Manhattan to LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, they realized it would only be permitted to take people who were flying because the proposal was to include funds from the PFC.
Perry Cooper, spokesman for Sea-Tac, said an increase to the PFC would make paying for projects included in his airport’s master plan much easier. Trump does not seem sold. In video released from the meeting last week, Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano raised the idea of being allowed to raise the PFC. Trump disagreed but added, “Don’t worry about the money. I’ll be able to get the money.”
While airports around the country wait for the president to find funding, Boyd still defends the push for an increase — also supported by ACI-NA: “All this fee does is help airports. The airline industry needs to work with the airport industry because right now we are at a standstill.”