Modernizing Airports and Air Traffic Control Facilities Among Top Priorities in Aviation Infrastructure Funding
The Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovation of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing titled Aviation Infrastructure for the 21st Century, on June 23, to discuss the current state of aviation infrastructure in the United States as well as plans for maintaining and modernizing such infrastructure. The list of witnesses and their testimonies are as below.
- Danette Bewley, President and CEO, Tucson Airport Authority
- Paul Cullen, Vice President for Real Estate, Southwest Airlines
- Paul Rinaldi, President, National Air Traffic Controllers Association
- Benjamin Miller, The RAND Corporation
- Sean Donohue, CEO, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport
In her opening statement, Subcommittee chair Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) highlighted the importance of investing in modern aviation infrastructure in order for the U.S. to remain the world leader in aviation safety, to improve air travel efficiency, and to modernize air travel for the 21st century. Sinema emphasized the need to improve the current state of aviation infrastructure citing the 2020 American Society of Civil Engineers Report that rated U.S. aviation infrastructure at D+. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the ranking member of the Subcommittee, stated that the nation’s aviation infrastructure needs improvements to make them more resilient, and urged all stakeholders to consider “bold and creative solutions” that will bolster the aviation infrastructure for the next 50 years.
The discussions mainly centered on two key components of aviation infrastructure: airports and air traffic control facilities.
Airports are an essential component of the U.S. transportation infrastructure that contribute to the national and local economies by providing jobs and attracting new businesses to regions where they are located. Currently, airport operators face numerous challenges that may hamper their ability to provide the necessary services and operate efficiently. Some of the challenges are those related to funding long term airport development projects. Danette Bewley cited a 2020 Airport Infrastructure Needs Study arguing that even before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, airports were chronically underfunded. As a result, the report showed that there is a backlog of more than $115 billion in airport infrastructure needs.
The need to modernize the antiquated airport infrastructure was echoed in statements by Sean Donohue and Paul Rinaldi. Bewley presented several policy recommendations to help fund projects in airports, including providing direct federal funding for airport infrastructure funding by providing at least $50 billion over the next 5 years in airports of all sizes and increasing the federal cap on the passenger facility charge (PFC).
Tapping the PFC as a source of funding for airports was among the recommendations presented by Benjamin Miller based on the findings of a recent RAND report, U.S. Airport Infrastructure Funding and Financing. However, Paul Cullen of Southwest Airlines was not in complete agreement that PFC would significantly increase funding for airports. On the contrary, Cullen argued that increasing PFC will increase air travel fares and may result in reduced number of air travelers. In addition, Cullen mentioned that passengers who use multiple airports on one trip will pay PFC in multiple airports resulting in double taxation.
Air Traffic Control
On air traffic control facilities, Paul Rinaldi provided several examples of some of the facilities that are in dire need of replacement. With facilities that are more than 60 years old, water leaks, plumbing issues, broken counter tops, and nonfunctional elevators are a few examples of the many infrastructural challenges in air traffic controls facilities. Responding to Sinema’s question on how aging facilities may affect the work of Air Traffic Controllers, Rinaldi responded that ATC is a high intensity and high focus job. Aging facilities that do not provide friendly and conducive work environment may impede safety. According to Rinaldi’s written testimony, priorities for air traffic control facilities going forward include replacement of antiquated facilities in some U.S. regions and territories, modernization of communications technology, and updating traffic management tools for existing users and new entrants like UAS and commercial space users.
Throughout the hearing several Subcommittee members and panelists acknowledged the critical role played by the CARES Act funding in supporting the air transportation industry—both airports and airlines. Bewley and Donohue testified that the CARES Act funding was beneficial in supporting employees’ payroll in addition to providing support to airport concessionaires.