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Across America, giving airports an upgrade

January 26, 2015

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Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is embracing solar power. But other airports badly need improvements.

Have you been to your local airport lately? All across the U.S., airports such Detroit Metropolitan, New York’s JFK International, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International and San Francisco International, have spent billions on overhauls.

They’ve added new and upgraded terminals,  runway improvements and other infrastructure projects.

But that doesn’t seem to be the norm among American airports. Others are still operating out of aging terminals and are struggling to keep up with even basic modern-day improvements.

Every two years, Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) releases its Capital Needs Survey.  According to the 2013 survey, U.S. airports need to complete $71.3 billion worth of essential infrastructure projects through 2017, including major runway and terminal expansions, in order to keep pace with passenger growth forecasts. And airports don’t have the funding available to do this.

What is driving this need for increased infrastructure funding?

  • One, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) numbers that show passenger traffic will grow at an average annual of 3.2 percent through 2032, and freight activity at an average annual growth rate of 4.9 percent through 2032.
  • Two, many airport facilities were built 40 years ago.
  • Three, changing aircraft technology is requiring airports to update or replace equipment and infrastructure.

The survey found that the top three states by airport capital needs were Texas at $8.3 billion, Florida at $7 billion and California at $6.6 billion.

The study noted that 16 top airports — including Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and Baltimore — have needs for infrastructure projects costing more than $1 billion. That means there are stories all over the country just waiting to be done on airports and their issues.

Infrastructure projects don’t just help airports and passengers. They are also major job creators and economic development engines for their communities.

“The FAA predicts there will be one billion air travelers per year in the U.S. by 2024.  And the Obama Administration has set a goal of attracting 100 million overseas visitors by 2021, which would create an additional 1.3 million American jobs and $859 billion in spending,” said Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association in a statement.

“But in order to realize these benefits, we must make significant investments in our airport infrastructure.  Without world-class airports, America will be less connected as a country, less productive as a society and less competitive in a global economy.”

And despite the best efforts of ACI-NA and the American Association of Airport Executives to get more funding, the money to fund all projects just isn’t there. As a result, airports have delayed or scaled back capital projects in response to airline industry consolidation, reduced airline service, and challenging economic conditions.

So follow the progress of the FAA reauthorization bill, which will include provisions that will help fund some, but not all of the needed airport infrastructure projects. 


  • Benét J. Wilson

    Benét, known as the Aviation Queen, is a senior editor at TPG who is best known for being an aviation journalist for 25-plus years. Her love affair with travel and aviation began at age 6, when her Air Force family moved from California to a military...

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