Airports Needed, but near term solutions should Maximize use of Existing Capacity

Maximizing Existing Airport Capacity
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Maximizing Existing Airport Capacity

Near Term Solutions Involve National Leadership & Local Loyalty

The author of this article, Mr. Conor Sen, comes to the following conclusion in his article:

 And national airport hubs are thriving while regional hubs are a shell of what they were a decade ago.

One of these problems actually looks more like a solution. Struggling places with excess airport capacity have an economic opportunity that larger, more vibrant cities do not.

Changes in the airline industry in the 2000s created a lot of excess airport capacity in certain places.

In order to cut costs and become more efficient, the remaining consolidated airline companies reduced service in certain markets, and exited some of their regional hubs. Passenger traffic at those hubs plunged. Since their peaks, passenger traffic at former regional airport hubs in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis is down over 50 percent.

That’s an interesting proposition, but there may be some +s and -s to his analysis:

•  There are those who assert that the future infrastructure needs for airports are more than the marginal transfer of traffic from an existing airport at capacity to one of the underutilized regional airports (CVG, STL, MEM)— US airports have US$100 billion infrastructure need, says ACI-NA report.

•  This is a judgment with which the FAA agrees.

•  The airlines would argue that the strength of the underlying local traffic inherent in their major hubs allows them to build major connecting banks, while a regional hub would likely not attract the point-to-point traffic needed to support the same array of flights.

•  The FAA NextGen’s technology will increase existing capacity without new runways; for example, the multiple runways operations improvement is the equivalent of adding a new runway at ATL just through this new system.

•  In fact, at some of the high traffic airports, the neighbors have objected to the increased impact on specific waypoints along the more precise routes of NextGen. If transfer out of hubs into regionals is possible, these groups would welcome Mr. Sen’s solution.

•  The people living near CVG, STL, RDU, NSH and other downsized airports may not welcome additional flights at their airports—even in spite of the added jobs. Increased sensitivity to noise is on the rise despite the airline’s investment in quieter aircraft. The transfer may not be welcomed by the underused airport’s community.

•  Proposed increases in airport capacity are not as easily calculated as they were in the past. It is no longer just an assessment of how many more flights can be handled by the addition of a new runway. The following complex, interrelated factors must be analyzed:

  • Can the airspace handle the added traffic?
  • Do the terminals have adequate space to accommodate the check-in’s, baggage, gates, etc.
  • Will neighbors fight any additional noise?
  • Will the airlines agree to the more debt? [Do they have a right to object? If not, can they impact the local politics?]
  • Will the local governments continue to endorse the funding through the life of the project?
  • Is it reasonable to assume that federal funding will be available?
    • Will the Trust Fund remain solvent?
    • Will PFCs be authorized? The maximum be increased/decreased?
    • Will the airlines get the ticket tax reduced and thus magnify the competition for discretionary dollars?
    • No place-naming?

Maximizing Existing Airport Capacity

The two variable equations of the past are now beyond three axes and into multifactor simultaneous equation solutions. Further, many of the considerations are interrelated. Added runways require more land side and airspace increases and in turn demand greater spending over longer terms and consequently compel increased political support and thus give the neighbors greater leverage. Obviously, all of those elements require longer processes.

Airports are critical to local economic growth, but the relationship is complex. Passenger demand is a product of what is happening in the originating traffic catchment area economy. Communities can attempt to subsidize air service but the service usually disappears when the subsidy does. Cargo, on the other hand presents a unique opportunity to leverage regional airport capacity and economies. ACI expands on this idea:

“International Gateway airports are very similar to an air cargo hub in that they are not dependent on the surrounding market to generate tonnage to support the operations. This type of gateway functions as a consolidation, distribution and processing center for international air cargo.”

We agree with Rhonda Hamm-Niebrugge, Director of Airports at Lambert St Louis International Airport that a paradigm shift is necessary to leverage existing capacity and it starts with Cargo.

Expansion of infrastructure to maximize efficiency of air and ground logistics is critical to leverage the value of international trade agreements. This requires considering the current constraints on flow of international air cargo imposed by the degrees of freedom allowed in international trade agreements.

The attractive aspects of airport growth also entail problems. The momentum for any of the possible methods of adding or repurposing aviation facilities must involve both strong national leadership and enduring local loyalty to the projects.


Building Airports Is Hard. Why Not Use the Ones We Have?
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