President Trump speaks Feb. 9, 2017, during a meeting with airline and airport executives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo: SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON – Airport executives who met Thursday with President Trump heard support for upgrading their facilities, and airline executives heard Trump endorse the privatization of air-traffic control. But the details must still be resolved.
Kevin Burke, CEO of Airports Council International – North America, said Trump stated four times that “we need to rebuild America’s airports.” The group outlined plans for $100 billion in projects over the next five years, if the funding could be found.
“He asked a lot of questions,” Burke said. “He said that he would get the money – he would figure out a way to get the money. We looked at that as a positive thing.”
Trump suggested that U.S. airport executives visit Dubai and Singapore to see how good airports operate. Trump asked about the major construction at New York's LaGuardia airport.
“We’ve got some homework to do in the United States and see what’s happening around the world,” said Bill Vanecek, director of aviation for Buffalo Niagara International Airport and chairman of ACI.
Buffalo is now designing a $65 million terminal expansion and enhancement project for the next five years.
“We’ll be very closely monitoring the financing options for that project,” Vanecek said.
Rob Wigington, CEO of Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, said that airport is the fourth-fastest growing in the country and has plans for $1.2 billion over five years to improve parking, roads, terminals and add gates.
“That’s exactly the kind of program where we need more passenger-facility charges at the local level to help us do that,” Wigington said.
Funding is the open question. Trump has proposed $1 trillion during the next decade for construction of roads, bridges and airports. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has discouraged talk of a trillion-dollar stimulus.
Trump proposed that at least part of the funding would come from tax credits that could spur private investment on public projects, which airlines support for the billions they spend on airport projects.
But another perennial debate in Congress is whether to increase the $4.50 cap on local fees on plane tickets called passenger-facility charges that pay to add gates or improve terminals.
Airlines oppose a fee hike as a travel deterrent. But airports contend a hike to perhaps $8.50 for each leg of a trip would improve facilities and would be small compared to bag fees.
Burke said Trump voiced his opposition to raising fees. But Burke took it as a victory that Trump called the charge a fee rather than a tax.
“The good news on the first part was that in general he doesn’t like raising fees, and he referred to it as a fee," Burke said. “To us, that’s a victory in terms of us explaining that this was a user fee paid for by people who use infrastructure."
Trump asked staffers to prepare for a follow-up meeting with the executives in about three months to narrow down what could be done.
“He was not specific,” Burke said of funding source. “It’s our job to make it more specific at no expense to the federal government.”
Another aspect of modernizing airports deals with a proposal to shift air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration to a private corporation. Congress will debate privatization as part of FAA's authorizing legislation, which expires Sept. 30. Airline executives said Trump sounded supportive.
The goal is to provide more stable funding from fees airlines now pay the government, but without political fights in Congress that have led to a government shutdown and controller furloughs in recent years.
“I think he’s on track to do that,” said Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, a trade group that represents most of the largest carriers.
Burke said Trump didn't specifically endorse privatization, but argued that air-traffic control needs to improve to catch up with Canada and Europe.
“It was very animated," Burke said. “We have the safest air system in the world, but the technology is behind NavCanada and Europe."
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told Trump that a top priority for airlines would be to "modernize the air traffic control system.”
The FAA is upgrading equipment to change from ground-based radar to GPS tracking of planes, along with different flight plans to make routes more efficient, under a program called NextGen. But airlines have been impatient with the program’s pace and results.
"I hear we're spending billions and billions of dollars, it's a system that's totally out of whack," said Trump, who suggested FAA would be better served if a pilot was in charge. "We want the traveling public to have the greatest customer service and with an absolute minimum of delays."
The FAA issued a statement late Thursday that it had spent $7.5 billion that Congress approved for NextGen during the past seven years in what it called a successful, continuing program. FAA said it resulted so far in $2.7 billion in benefits to passengers and is expected to yield more than $160 billion in benefits by 2030.
"NextGen is one of the most ambitious infrastructure and modernization projects in U.S. history," the FAA statement said. "The FAA invited airline stakeholders to help develop the blueprint for NextGen and they continue to have a seat at the table in setting NextGen priorities and investments through the NextGen Advisory Committee."
Airlines for America and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have supported private controllers. But Delta Air Lines quit the trade group and argued against a shift because it could cause disruption during years of transition at a time when FAA is improving.
“We had a positive discussion about many of the major issues facing U.S. travelers, airline employees and the aviation industry, which is a vital economic engine for America,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a statement.