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Congress wants to make the way to the airport less miserable

If you are flying from Singapore Changi, ranked the best airport in the world by the aviation research and research group Skytrax, you can spend time in the airport's tropical butterfly garden before your flight.

In secondary Tokyo Haneda, you can enjoy one of several open-air rooftop restaurants and a rapid transit monorail system that connects the terminals. At Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, which is in ninth place, you can visit a free art museum extension before going to one of the 223 gates, which are spread over a single terminal concept.

However, if you are flying from the US, the best part of a trip to the airport is likely to be departure. After long lines, waiting in overcrowded gates and dealing with delays, it's understandable to want to leave the airport as quickly as possible. And it certainly doesn't help that the features that put other airports at the top of the rankings are unrecognizable to someone flying in the United States.

No American airport cracks Skytax's top 30; Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport is ranked 31st highest rated American airport, and only Houston, Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky, Denver and Atlanta airports make the top 50.

Not only a few US airports are among the best in the world, but are overall in poor shape: In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America's aviation system a D +, largely because of the fundamental inefficiencies of the airports and the lack of space to problems such as delays and overcrowding. Airport quality was inferior to other often maligned parts of the U.S. transportation infrastructure, such as bridges that were given a C and roads that were given a D.

Federal aid for airports could be on the way, however. The White House and a bipartisan group of Senators are working on a plan to invest approximately $ 1 trillion in U.S. infrastructure, including $ 25 billion in airports.

This bipartisan infrastructure framework (known as the BIF) still has a long way to go before being passed, despite an initial agreement reached in the Senate. The deal still faces potential challenges in the House of Representatives, where progressive Democrats have signaled their reluctance to back it without guaranteed moderate support for a separate budget package that includes investments such as universal pre-K and green card reforms. But the outlook is positive overall – a welcome sign for airports in need of funding for long-awaited improvements.

When the bipartisan framework becomes law, airports' budgetary needs are so great – and their spatial challenges so great – that $ 25 billion is unlikely to be enough to solve their infrastructure problems. Still, the money would be helpful – not necessarily to make US airports more luxurious, but to make check-in, security, and boarding more efficient; Make air travel a little greener; and to ensure that airports built before television can meet the travel needs of the 21st century.

American airports were built for air travel in the 1940s. Flying is very different today.

The problems of American airports are known to travelers. In almost every US airport, the physical space is insufficient to meet modern requirements, from security checks to health protocols. There are more flights than gates, causing delays. And not every airport can afford the latest air traffic control technology, which affects its ability to efficiently manage its airspace.

The growing numbers of passengers could exacerbate these problems: for the past two years, ASCE has found that the growth in air travel has outpaced the growth in the number of flights, and while the number of passengers has apparently plummeted sharply during the pandemic, travel is ready to recover this summer. And even during the pandemic, cargo – another critical factor in the aviation infrastructure equation – picked up speed.

At the Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky Airport, CEO Candace McGraw said cargo volume increased 25 percent year-to-date in 2021 and passenger traffic is gradually returning to normal levels. The US simply doesn't have the infrastructural capacity to meet this type of demand.

We have already seen what happens when sudden changes give way to airports: longer lines, more crowds and delays. New regulations after September 11th meant that airports had to adjust to the establishment of checkpoints for the Transportation Security Administration and to make room for new baggage control systems in the terminals.

For older airports in particular, it became a challenge to get everything fit and to accommodate the additional lines. Now, with the pandemic, there is a need for health checkpoints, which further complicates the spatial geometry of airports and the pressure to upgrade HVAC systems and expand cleaning procedures, both of which require additional resources.

ASCE found that flight delay minutes increased from just over 60 million in 2017 to nearly 100 million in 2019. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that weather was only 3 percent of these delays; the main culprits are late arrivals (33 percent), a delay in the national aviation system (29 percent) and an airline delay (25 percent). Tor Anderzen, the author of ASCE's infrastructure report, said infrastructure challenges can be blamed for most of the delays because capacity issues cause snowballs.

For example, suppose a plane arrives late in New York because of an airline delay – passengers cannot board yet because the plane has not yet docked at the gate. The plane is at the airport, but with demand so close to the terminal capacity, it has to taxi on the runway for a while before it arrives. Now boarding for the next flight of this aircraft is delayed 10 minutes. When the plane flies to its next destination, it will be delayed and pose a dilemma for air traffic control when it lands in Atlanta. This leads to further delays. Until it takes off again to go to Las Vegas, passengers now have to expect a 30-minute delay.

“People are frustrated with the system delays,” said Anderzen. “The cost of underinvesting in our aviation infrastructure is measured not just in minutes of delay, but also in dollars of lost revenue. It … also affects our mental health as travelers. "

Many of the problems US airports face are due to the fact that most of them were planned and built in a completely different travel time.

U.S. airport construction really accelerated after World War II, after the Federal Airport Act of 1946 granted grants that could fund up to half the cost of an airport project. Investment in maintenance and expansion remained relatively small until 1970 when the law was repealed in favor of the Airport and Airway Development Act, which approved the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), a government grant program averaging $ 3 billion per year Providing predictable annual funding for airports. This money is helpful, but it only goes so far, especially since it is limited to public areas of the airport terminal and therefore cannot improve gate areas as a whole, for example.

It takes more money with fewer restrictions because as frustrating as things are now, with new coronavirus procedures and a possible surge in travel demand, without further construction and investment, things could get worse soon.

US airports have to solve their space problems

The only major U.S. airport to open in the last 30 years is Denver International Airport, a mega-project that allowed the Denver Regional Council of Governments to pick a seat in the 1980s rather than the 1940s. The result, which by today's standards cost 8.2 billion US dollars, was the largest airport in North America with far more space than usual for terminals and check-in halls.

Other airports are not so lucky. They have been rebuilt and expanded in the years since they were first built, but they are often limited in range. At Reagan National Airport, for example, experts say there is simply no more space to build; at this point it is what it is.

Most airports, even if they are far from the city center, are surrounded by residential and commercial areas. The locations are stuck with the land they chose for their airports so many decades ago, and there is very little room for expansion. Even in areas where new land could be purchased, environmental regulations and especially community opposition can make it nearly impossible to buy or build – such as noise complaints from homeowners at airports.

"They usually have to operate within the current footprint," says Janet Bednarek, professor of aviation history at the University of Dayton. "No matter what extension they had in the 50s and 60s, and that pretty much set the limits of where they could be."

Ideally, cities with aging airports would get federal funding to start from scratch, like Denver did. This would allow municipalities to design spaces with modern safety, health and capacity considerations in mind. That would mean huge new terminals, lots of runways, check-in areas with plenty of space for TSA checkpoints, and maybe even a butterfly garden or two.

But the Denver Airport price tag shows why that isn't possible. Instead, the cities will have to work with what may be the next 25 billion US dollars, which at best enables a renovation. That brings with it far more challenges than just building from it scratch, from Leveraging creative architectural choices to maximize the space available (as Reagan should do); Find ways to get passengers and planes around construction sites without unduly degrading the travel experience; and of course limited to the current airport footprint.

Overall, building a new airport is simply easier than renovating – and more likely to solve the most common problems facing US airports. But renovating is cheaper than building a new one, and while it may not completely eliminate all problems, it is certainly better than doing nothing.

There is some federal funding for airports, but cities and states are mostly on their own

Apart from the federal programs mentioned Congress has viewed airports as state and local jurisdictions since 1926, when federal law established state and local governments as sole owners and operators of airports. With the exception of the two airports that serve the District of Columbia – Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport – American airports are still owned and managed at the local level.

This is not the case internationally: In China, the government selects locations and finances the planning and construction of airports, with a particular focus on international gateway airports such as the new Beijing Daxing International Airport. Bednarek notes that this difference makes it difficult to directly compare even the largest U.S. airports with what are considered the best in the world.

"When (flyers) compare some of these international airports with American airports, they generally speak of airports that were deliberately designed as international gateways by the national governments in these countries," said Bednarek. "They are usually the airport that foreigners fly to when they come into the country."

The US didn't design its infrastructure to have a high-profile airport that all international travelers come to – in fact, international travel was mostly by sea when some of its oldest airports were built. And no state or local government has the space or money to try and build one.

"In the US … it would be up to the local authorities to decide what to do," she continued. “We are a very large country and there are many international airports. So it's a much diffuse airport market. "

American airports are funded with a mix of the revenue they generate, federal grants, and funding through options such as the sale of bonds.

Nationwide, each of the approximately 400 US airports with 10,000 or more passengers automatically receives authorization from the AIP every year. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the United States, is typically entitled to around $ 130 million. Otherwise, airports generate income mainly by collecting rents from hotels, restaurants, rental car companies, parking lot operators and, of course, airlines for landing fees and terminal space. They also pocket the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC), a collection fee of up to $ 4.50 on ticket prices capped by the federal government, essentially a tax on travelers.

Those sources of funding are huge revenue streams – parking and rental cars alone generated over $ 6 billion for the 30 major hub airports in 2018, said Dave NewMyer, professor emeritus of aviation management and air traffic at Southern Illinois University – but much of it goes on a daily basis Operating costs such as salaries and wages, contractual services such as snow removal or engineering, as well as repairs and maintenance. This leaves little, if any, left for large construction projects, that is, when large projects are approved, state and local airport authorities have to sell bonds, i.e. take on debt, in order to finance them.

“A lot of people wonder why we don't do so well on some surveys,” NewMyer said. "There's not much money left for that."

Can the infrastructure plan help make air travel less terrible?

Details on the BIF's proposed $ 25 billion in FAA funding are not yet finalized, but the current plan is focused on addressing repair backlogs and investing in emissions reduction technologies. So far, travelers seem optimistic to see some improvements – lawmakers in particular seem to be focusing on terminal upgrades, which ASCE has identified as the greatest investment need.

Grants to airports to fix their aging terminal infrastructure would allow them to potentially expand the terminals, or at least get creative at airports where there is no room for expansion.

"Demand at many airports is booming, with more planes arriving than they have gates," said Greg Pecoraro, president of the National Association of State Aviation Officials. "We need more gates, larger terminals and more capacity to be able to park aircraft."

LaGuardia Airport in New York City – which is surrounded by development – is an example of what a successful BIF could help with funding.

This year, widely regarded as the worst airport in the US, the airport renovated its Terminal B as part of a public-private partnership – a new trend in aviation. The $ 8 billion project is the largest public-private partnership in American aviation history and resulted in the creation of 72 new gates, a new garage, a new hall, a renovated pavement, a new runway, a giant mosaic wall, an enlarged one Departure lounge and free Covid-19 tests. The terminal is 50 percent larger than the one it replaced.

In order to circumvent space restrictions, LaGuardia reconfigured the layout of the airfield, converted previously separate terminals into a single building and relocated the entire facility in order to use more land. Overall, the new building made better use of the available space, which is not necessarily reproducible at all US airports, but with a creativity that could be repeated with the help of federal funds.

As a public-private partnership, two-thirds of the bill is paid through existing passenger and rental fees and funding from LaGuardia Gateway Partners in return for a lease to operate and maintain Terminal B and collect its revenue through 2050 The cost of the project and the amount of private funding required give an idea of ​​how expensive a successful terminal modernization project can be.

Airport proponents say BIF funding is a step in the right direction, but insufficient given the huge challenges – especially given possible short- and long-term needs, such as environmentally friendly fuel sources and terminal housing for future air travel, such as air taxis and unmanned aircraft systems.

Should the BIF pass, "Hopefully people can expect a more seamless experience," Pecoraro said. “When you check in, it is easier for you to go through security, check in your luggage and collect your luggage at the other end. Thanks to an improved aviation management system, they have easy access to a flight that arrives and takes off on time. The flight route of the aircraft becomes more direct to the destination, which means lower fuel costs, which keeps ticket prices as low as possible. When people arrive at their destination airport, a gate is waiting for them so that the plane can drive up to the gate. "

The successful passage of the BIF does not mean US travelers will see butterfly gardens or museum buildings at their local airports. But it does mean that, according to Airports Council International estimates, around half of the capital projects needed can be funded in the next five years – and passengers will see that. The flying experience at a BIF refurbished airport won't be fun, but it should be far less stressful.

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