Senate and House bills to boost spending on airport improvements

Two bills that were introduced June 21 and 22 provide very different outcomes for the future of aviation in the United States. Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, introduced a six-year draft House bill called the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (AIRR Act), a revised version from last year’s bill.

The bill includes provisions and reforms to reduce red tape in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) certification process for aircraft and aviation products, foster innovation in unmanned aircraft systems, fund the Nation’s airport infrastructure,  and privatize air traffic controllers (ATC). It also would beef up some protections for the flying public. For example, the legislation prohibits airlines from involuntarily bumping a passenger once they have already boarded a plane. The bill also requires airlines to install secondary metal barriers on new planes to prevent terrorists from entering the flight deck. Another provision would prohibit the transportation secretary from approving any foreign airline service to the U.S. if the carrier is established in a country other than its majority owner. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the bill Tuesday. Now the legislation must be considered by the full House and the Senate.

The second bill, introduced by Sen. John Thune and Sen. Bill Nelson, unveiled the Senate’s  FAA Reauthorization Act of 2017,which reauthorizes federal aviation programs through fiscal year 2021.

The Thune-Nelson bill would help manufacturers by reforming certifications, improve certain consumer protections, underpin ATC technology modernization, and boosts unmanned air vehicle enforcement powers at the FAA. The Senate legislation would require FAA to update its “NextGen” technology to replace radar-based air control with a GPS-based system. The bill also directs the Department of Transportation to create a carrier certificate allowing for package deliveries by drones, according to a summary. It also addresses issues with personal drone usage, including criminalizing reckless drone behavior, promoting safety and increasing privacy, as well as developing other innovative uses. The reauthorization act improves requirements for the bulk transfer of lithium batteries and supports contract air traffic control towers. The legislation also allows general aviation airports more flexibility to facilitate infrastructure investment. The senate commerce committee is slated to vote on the Thune-Nelson bill on June 29.

One key similarity between the bills is the boost each one would provide to airport construction spending.

Both bills hike FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) infrastructure grants from this year’s $3.35 billion appropriation. The Thune version raises AIP in steps to $3.75 billion in its last year, 2021. Its annual AIP average over the four years is $3.65 billion, up 9 percent from this year’s level. Shuster’s version also has gradual annual increases for AIP, to a maximum of $3.82 billion in the proposal’s final year, 2023. Its annual average is $3.62 billion, an 8 percent hike over 2017.

Here are a few airport improvement projects coming up throughout the U.S.:

The Town of Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Yosemite Airport in California are seeking a request for statements of qualifications for architectural and engineering services.  Aviation consultants will provide up to 25 percent conceptual design services in support of the environmental documentation process for a proposed new 40,000 square foot, three gate passenger terminal and an associated approximately 119,500 square foot aircraft parking apron capable of parking three commercial aircraft. Initial services will support the National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act review and documentation. Later phases are expected to include final design, consultation during construction and construction management. Responses to this request for statements of qualifications (RFQ) are due at 4 p.m. on July 20.

The Spokane Airport Board in the State of Washington is seeking statements of qualifications from qualified firms or teams of firms to provide architect and engineer services for the terminal renovation and expansion program. Spokane International Airport is the second busiest airport in the State of Washington and serves as the primary commercial service air transportation facility for eastern Washington and northwestern Idaho. The Board intends to deliver a series of projects that will unify the terminal complex, provide for future growth, improve efficiency by optimizing passenger flow and use of space and upgrade the overall passenger experience at Spokane International Airport. The RFQ is due by 2 p.m. July 10.

The General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wisc. is inviting qualified professional firms or teams to submit astatement of qualifications (SOQ) to provide airport planning services for the update of the Airport Master Plan. The most recent update to the Master Plan was in 2000. The update, including airport layout plan will reflect existing conditions and depict future airport development. This medium hub airport serves the Milwaukee Metropolitan area and surrounding urban, suburban and rural communities of Southeastern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. The SOQ is due by 2 p.m. on July 10.

Elmira Corning Regional Airport in New York will apply for $11.5 million in FAA funding toward the airport’s $58 million terminal overhaul. The money — $10.06 million of which would come from a discretionary pot of funding from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, and $1.43 million of which would come from the airport’s annual entitlement — would leverage a $40 million state grant awarded for the project. Funding would be used toward the first phase of terminal construction, which could begin as soon as next month. The airport’s overhaul will occur in phases.

Work anticipated for the initial phase includes demolition of the terminal’s eastern half, construction of a temporary departure lounge and baggage claim area, and the construction of foundations, structural steel, exterior walls and roofing for the new portion of the terminal. Acquisition of a new jet bridge to accommodate larger aircraft would also be initiated in the first phase.

In a project narrative attached to the application and made available to legislators, officials list the terminal rehabilitation as a priority project under the airport’s master plan. The existing terminal was originally built in the 1950s and last renovated in 1990, and its design needs to be updated for post 9/11 security requirements and the needs of modern travelers. Bids for the first phase will be opened in the next couple of weeks and construction is anticipated to start soon after.

Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport  in Oklahoma could be looking at the start of two major improvement projects by fall, including construction of a new fire station. Construction of Fire Station No. 2 will replace the aging facility on Bishop Road that was built in the 1970s. The building has structural damage, and the airport and city of Lawton are working under an agreement that is using funding from three sources, including $2.4 million from the FAA, to build a new joint use facility that provides a crew dedicated to aviation emergencies and another handle emergencies in south Lawton. That runway work was suggested by an engineer to resolve problems with cracking. An in-depth analysis revealed the problem stemmed from water under the runway and taxiways. The project to be bid in July will help resolve the problem by sealing joints and cracks in the runway and, in some cases, completely replacing concrete segments.

Is it time for the U.S. to begin flying the private skies?

Shifting air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to a private partnership is part of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget that was introduced last week. Critics say it isn’t a good idea because of the lack of congressional oversight. In 2015, members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Subcommittee on Aviation were requested to review the causes of recent disruptions and whether the FAA possesses the ability to manage air traffic control crises that arise within the National Airspace System. In January, the Office of Inspector General released an audit report that stated “although FAA has taken steps to improve its operational contingency plans, significant work remains to mitigate the effects of major system disruptions.”

One of the examples of these disruptions provided in the 23-page audit occurred in 2014 when a communications contractor assigned to the Aurora FAA radar center set fire to the center, grounding more than 2,000 flights in Chicago. The contractor allegedly planned  to “take out” the center and kill himself. The contractor was charged with setting fire to and damaging an air navigation facility. The audit stated that the “FAA’s air traffic facilities are not yet fully prepared to respond effectively to major system disruptions, in part because of a lack of necessary controller training for these types of emergency events.” Congress will debate the possible change as part of renewing the reauthorization of FAA funding, whose current spending authority expires on Sept. 30.

But, privatizing airport operations has been flying along at full speed since 1997 when Congress established the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program. The pilot was initiated to explore privatization to a maximum of five airports as a means of generating access to various sources of private capital for airport improvement and development. In 2012, the Reauthorization Act increased the number of airports from five to 10. As of April 2017, there are four airports in the privatization program: Hendry County Airglades Airport in Florida, Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in Puerto Rico, St. Louis Lambert International Airport in Missouri and Westchester County Airport in New York.  Airport privatization is nothing new outside of the U.S. The British Airports Authority was privatized in 1987 and airport facilities have been sold and leased in numerous countries, including Australia, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, India, Mexico, New Zealand and Peru.

Once an airport is granted approval by the FAA to seek privatization, a bid is requested from private entities to develop proposals that include details of how they will develop and operate the airport or airport system over a long-term concession period, given their experience and expertise.  Infrastructure experts and advocates of public-private partnerships (P3) tend to see airports as the ideal candidates for the model’s application, because there are so many potential sources of revenue.

According to a Congressional Research Service study released last year, interest is lacking on P3s based on a several-year-long application process, restrictions on how much airports can increase rates and charges, and tax privileges for public bonds that make long-term financing costlier for the private sector.

The San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín airport is an example of a successful P3 and the facility has stuck with the airport privatization pilot program the longest. It entered into it in 2009, as a way to revive a lagging investment and help chip away at the $800 million of debt held by the Puerto Rico Ports Authority. Some cities and states are testing out their options on whether it would be feasible to become privatized.

In June 2014, Illinois officials purchased the 288-acre Bult Field with its 5,000-foot runway on Kedzie Avenue in Monee for $34 million, which was within the footprint established for a 5,800-acre airport. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) requested information from private businesses last month to see if any were interested in developing the South Suburban Airport in a P3, noting that the state was not interested in spending public money on the project. Six private firms have expressed interest in building and operating the airport. IDOT is now producing an Airport Master Plan for FAA review and approval.

Most airports remain under the ownership of a state, county or city, and several are attempting a new evolution in airports. The Tampa International Airport in Florida plans to spend more than $2 billion by 2026 on improvements and new amenities in the terminals and around the airport property as part of its master plan overhaul. Airports wont be just a place to park, get a snack and board a flight anymore. These transportation facilities are adding new development around their structures so people can work, sleep, dine and shop, even if they aren’t taking a flight. Tampa’s $543 million phase two of the Tampa’s International Airport’s master plan includes a 17-acre commercial development for two hotels, an eight-story, 240,000-square-foot office building, a 20,000-square-foot retail strip, a gas station with a convenience store and possibly a pet hotel. It will be located next to the economy parking garage and accessible to the main terminal through the airport’s people mover train, which will be completed later this year.

The Port of Bellingham in Washington owns and operates the Bellingham International Airport (BLI), which is a small non-hub airport serving the city of Bellingham, County of Whatcom, County of Skagit, County of Snohomish and the Lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada. BLI serves a market of more than 1.4 million potential customers within a 60 mile radius. Since 2004, BLI has experienced significant growth in passenger enplanements resulting in the airport needing to update its’ growth projections multiple times to meet FAA requirements.  In 2014, the airport completed a $38.5 million terminal expansion project, expanding its main passenger terminal from 27,000 square feet to 104,000 square feet. Future projects include additional commercial aircraft parking and the long-term development of commercial facilities. The Port of Bellingham, Wash. is requesting statements of interest and qualifications from professional firms experienced in the retention and development of commercial airline air service for BLI. The deadline for proposals is June 23.

The City and Borough of Juneau, Alaska is requesting proposals from qualified consultants to provide a design for Taxiway-A rehabilitation and Taxiway-E realignment at the Juneau International Airport.

A study was performed on the airport and recommendations for several improvements were made that include the following: rehabilitate pavement on Taxiway-A, reconstruct shoulder pavement on Taxiway-A, rehabilitate taxiway edge lighting system, widen former Taxiway-H (for aircraft circulation during construction), replace Jordan Creek culvert beneath Taxiway-A, modify airfield drainage, realign Taxiway-E and geothermal pavement clearing. The airport has submitted an application for an Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grant to the FAA for design of the project. Future grant applications will be submitted for construction of the project. Proposals are due by June 21.

Fort Lauderdale Airport to accommodate growth with expansion

Florida- The number of passengers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport increased 23.4 percent in the past five years and this number is expected to grow. The airport has very little outside space for expansion, so improvements would need to be around the facility. The airport will need additional airplane gates, a way to connect its four terminals, decreased congestion in the terminal and to provide a larger cell-phone parking lot for people waiting for planes to arrive.
Another addition would be to demolish the four-level Palm Garage and replace it with a nine-level structure that includes a hotel. One thing the airport hasn’t had is convenient lodging for travelers. Planners haven’t figured out the details of a hotel, but it will probably be built through some type of public-private partnership. The cost of improvements won’t be paid for by taxpayers, but will come from grants and airport revenues – such as ticketing, landing and car rental fees.

Airport partners with city, developer on solar farm

The Tallahassee International Airport has moved one step closer to building a $33.2 million solar panel farm after receiving approval for the project from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airport will lease 120 acres on adjacent property for a solar developer to erect 90,000 solar modules that will produce up to 20 megawatts of electricity. The project also helps meet the city’s goals to diversify energy sources, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce its carbon footprint.

Construction is scheduled to last six months and be complete by next spring or summer.