Why we should invest today in 'Airports Inc.'

Despite unprecedented growth and clear evidence of the economic benefits of infrastructure investments, airports expect to have $80 billion in unmet needs through 2015 because of the flawed system used to pay for infrastructure projects.
 

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That has not always been the case. Airports generated millions of jobs and trillions of dollars for local communities between 2001 and 2010 because President Bill Clinton and Congress made two decisions to improve airport infrastructure planning and investment in 2000.
 
The first decision allowed local communities to raise more money to finance airport improvements by giving them the authority to increase the passenger facility charge from $3 to $4.50. This helped meet local needs by expanding airport capacity to serve more passengers, handle more cargo, attract more air service and most important: promote business and commerce.
 
The second decision increased investments in the federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) so that the money users pay into the nation’s Airport and Airway Trust Fund could be reinvested into the system, including the airports where all of this economic activity begins and ends. The money for this comes from the aviation trust fund which is funded by users.
 
Growth in jobs and business activity took place because we made a national decision to invest in the future – the airports that serve as the economic hubs of our national aviation system.
 
The result is that in 2010, airports were responsible for about 8 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and 7 percent of all U.S. jobs. By any standard, that is a significant return on investment. Dollar for dollar, commercial airports rate as a remarkably worthwhile infrastructure investment.
 
This is not news to other countries. Our international competitors recognize the benefits of modern airport infrastructure. That’s why they are building and expanding airports at a rapid pace (China alone is now building 12 to 15 new airports per year) to prepare for predicted growth in global travel and business.
 
Unfortunately, we are retreating from these policy and investment decisions at just the wrong time. After five years, 23 extensions and a 14-day shutdown, Congress passed an FAA Reauthorization bill early this year that did not provide for any new funding for airports – the passenger facility charge ceiling was not raised and Airport Improvement Program funding was cut.
 
Yet as the FAA data show, commercial airports need to begin investing now in order to meet the long-term needs of the traveling public over the next two decades. Commercial airports must have new runways and terminals, and aging facilities must be upgraded. This requires long lead times – as much as eight years – to move through the planning and permitting process. And don’t forget that successful implementation of the future air traffic control system known as NextGen depends on airport infrastructure investment as well.
 
We need to grant power to our localities and allow them to raise their own revenues and restore the national investment in aviation infrastructure. The answer to creating another two decades of good news is to ensure that our commercial airports are recognized as America’s economic engine – where job creation takes off.

Principato is president of Airports Council International-North America, which represents local, regional and state governing bodies that own and operate commercial airports.