Commercial airlines' second century takes off

When the first commercial flight set off across Tampa Bay on Jan. 1, 1914, no one could have predicted how aviation would take shape over the following century.  By the close of 2013, according to the International Air Transport Association, nearly 40 percent of the world’s population—or more than 3 billion people—had boarded a commercial flight.  More than one-third of the globe’s cargo by value is air freight.  Or simply in terms of gross domestic product, if commercial aviation were its own economy, it would rank among the world’s top 20.

2014 marks the start of the commercial aviation industry’s second century, and it’s no exaggeration to think that the next hundred years are equally limitless.  As interconnection between cities, countries and continents grows ever more commonplace as the means of doing business, boarding a flight very well could become as ubiquitous as commuting to work by train, bus or car.  Many futurists also envision the rise of the aerotropolis, with vibrant urban centers thriving around airport hubs.  But arriving at this potential requires true foresight and investment in the infrastructure that allows such possibility to be fully realized, particularly its centerpiece: airports.

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As the incoming CEO of Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA), my mission is to advocate for airports in both the United States and Canada to ensure that they maximize a competitive edge over their global counterparts.  North America’s airports serve as the gateways to an astonishing array of local, regional and national economic activity and development, but this success requires investment in order to keep pace with the rest of the world.

As a frequent flyer, I have experienced first-hand the need to relieve air-traffic congestion in the U.S. and expand and modernize our airports.  The nation’s airports have identified more than $73 billion in improvements critical to passengers, cargo shippers and airlines that are necessary over the next five years.  The funding mechanisms essential to allowing airports to complete these projects, however, remain in a holding pattern.  The Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) user-fee has lost half of its purchasing power since last raised in 2000, and funding for the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) has declined in recent years.

But there is reason for optimism.  This week, President Obama will make the case for a national commitment to infrastructure investments in his State of the Union address to Congress.  The administration’s budget for fiscal year 2014 already proposes to raise the PFC to a reasonable $8 from the current maximum of $4.50 per passenger so that airports can have more flexibility and local control in planning needed improvements.  ACI-NA sincerely hopes that aviation infrastructure will continue to be a focus.

It’s humbling and exciting that the beginning of my tenure at ACI-NA coincides with the start of commercial aviation’s next hundred years.  Our nation’s airports are central players in this next chapter, and our investment in them will determine their fates.  The Obama administration’s budget proposal is a start, but what is really needed is a commitment from the White House and Congress that our aviation infrastructure is an unwavering priority—in fiscal year 2014 and beyond.  I look forward to working to make this happen.

Burke is president and CEO of Airports Council International-North America, which represents local, regional and state governing bodies that own and operate commercial airports in the United States and Canada.