The following opinion-editorial by Airports Council International – North America President and CEO Kevin M. Burke underscores the need for Congress to modernize the way airports are funded. In the column, Burke mentions Raleigh-Durham International Airport as an example of an airport working to reduce passenger wait times. Airport Authority President and CEO Michael Landguth supports Burke’s call to modernize the Passenger Facility Charge.
“Airports need more flexibility to generate capital for important projects that will reduce congestion, improve customer experience and help airports to keep pace with continued passenger growth,” Landguth said.
The first step to fixing busy airports this summer
Washington Examiner (opinion-editorial by Kevin M. Burke)
The busy summer travel season often means one thing for passengers at American airports: longer lines in ever-more-crowded terminals. Our airports take every measure possible to prepare for the summer travel surge by implementing measures to minimize wait times, but tight budgets, outdated terminals and pre-9/11 screening facilities at many airports make it much harder to process millions of additional passengers.
Some recent press reports have suggested — and we agree — that the long wait times resulting from staffing shortfalls will be further exacerbated by the diversion of personnel from both the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection to the southern border. That debate also overlooks a much simpler solution that would help cut wait times and improve the travel experience for millions of Americans during future summer travel: updating the Passenger Facility Charge, or PFC, a local user fee on which airports depend to fund capital investments.
Passenger traffic has increased significantly over the last decade. The number of people getting on flights increased from 689 million in 2008 to 880 million in 2018, a jump of 27%. Over that same period of time, airports’ debt and infrastructure needs also increased dramatically, but airports are constrained in the amount of money they can collect for capital improvements. By giving airports more flexibility to generate capital, we can dramatically improve our congested facilities.
Congress last adjusted the cap on the PFC more than a year before the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. This was long before the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, which introduced new, larger equipment for screening passengers and baggage and implemented enhanced security measures at screening checkpoints. While these measures are necessary to ensure the safety of the traveling public, they can also lead to more congestion at checkpoints. Despite the demands of the post-9/11 world placed on our airports, Congress has not modernized the PFC in nearly two decades.
This has left America’s airports woefully underfunded and in need of major infrastructure upgrades, creating additional security challenges that we must address. A recent study found that airports need $128 billion in infrastructure upgrades through 2023. If Congress raises the cap on the PFC, airports will have far more discretion to invest in much-needed infrastructure improvements. This includes expanded security facilities that will better handle the flow of passengers during spikes in travel, more space at the gates to accommodate passengers waiting to board, improved access roads, and other projects to reduce curbside congestion. These investments will improve the passenger experience and enhance aviation security.
Lifting the anti-competitive federal cap on the PFC would allow airports to fund their infrastructure projects and in turn address many of the issues that cause long wait times. Case studies have shown that updated facilities and newer technology decrease wait times. For instance, Los Angeles International Airport recently announced that the opening of 14 new Automated Screening Lanes will increase the number of passengers screened by as much as 30%, significantly reducing wait times. And it’s not just large airports working to reduce wait times. Raleigh Durham International recently added two new security checkpoint lanes in order to keep up with passenger growth. Airport officials expect this security area expansion to reduce wait times and allow the airport to keep pace with future growth. Other airports would like to deploy technology or expand their screening facilities but lack the necessary capital.
Although these are promising examples, much work needs to be done to significantly cut wait times and improve the passenger experience. One of the biggest roadblocks to cutting wait times are some of our domestic airlines. The airlines have lobbied Congress for years to restrict funding for these projects because they are worried that increasing the PFC will spur competition, cutting ticket prices and loosening their dominance in certain cities. These same airlines have no issue charging fees for checked bags, seat assignments, and reservation changes, yet they are trying to block airports from making their own funding decisions.
Members of Congress spend as much time in local airports as anyone, and there has been support on both sides of the aisle to get something done. Modernizing the way we fund our airports is a rare bipartisan issue that will go a long way to improving the way America travels. With over 100 million Americans expected to travel this summer, it is the perfect time for Congress to take action on this important issue.
Kevin M. Burke is the president and chief executive officer of the Airports Council International – North America.