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Airport Operators Worry That Furloughs Deal Will Reduce Capital Spending

Mike Simons/Getty Images File Photo
Obama noted at his White House news conference last week that not a single U.S. airport cracked the top 25 in the annual ranking of world airports based on traveler surveys conducted by the British aviation consultants Skytrax. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, above, fared best at No. 30.

Those surveys focused on a variety of criteria in evaluating airports — availability and quality of smoking lounges, for instance, was one criteria — but airport operators worry that cutting Airport Improvement grants could hurt competitiveness at a basic service level.

An FAA report in February showed that a wide variety of projects were supported by the program in 2012. Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport in Louisiana, for example, used $5.77 million in Airport Improvement Program funds to rebuild a runway. Dallas/Fort Worth International, the major American Airlines hub in Texas, snagged $9 million to rebuild a runway.

Smaller general aviation facilities also benefited. The municipal air strip in Truth or Consequences, N.M., spent $388,982 in Airport Improvement Program funds last year to rebuild a taxiway and was able to add new lighting, too.

Supporters of tapping the Airport Improvement Program funds to reverse the furloughs contended that some of the funding has gone unspent. While that is true, airport operators worry that using the dedicated funding to pay for operations will end up forcing more costs onto consumers.

For big passenger hubs, that could mean increased passenger facility charges in the future, a move the White House has proposed in recent years to help trim the budget. At smaller general aviation facilities, aircraft operators could end up paying higher fees in the future to offset greater shares of capital costs.

Ultimately, advocates worry the deal might start a trend of paring down federal investment in air facilities of all sizes.

Last week, the airports council group sent FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta a letter warning his agency to be extremely cautious in how it spends the reallocated funds. Meanwhile, the group will urge lawmakers to fully restore Airport Improvement Program funding levels in fiscal 2014.

“Given that airports will be sacrificing needed capital improvements to keep the National Airspace System running this summer, it is critical for FAA to ensure every dollar of the $253 million is used directly on these critical operational priorities, and not on other non-operational expenses,” the airports group wrote.

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