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Airport operators were relieved that Congress enacted legislation before the recess rolling back air-traffic-controller furloughs — though they were less than pleased about where lawmakers found the money to offset the cuts.
The law allows the Transportation Department to transfer as much as $253 million from other accounts —including Airport Improvement Program grants — to keep the towers fully staffed. That ended delays and congestion at major airports but set a precedent of tapping capital improvement funds supported by user fees to pay for operations.
President Barack Obama — who reluctantly signed the bill into law (PL 113-9) — said the deal amounts to “using our seedcorn” and threatens to make American airports less competitive. Airport operators say it had better be a one-time fix.
“Airports agree that passenger delays and inconvenience cannot continue,” said David N. Edwards Jr., chairman of the Airports Council International - North America. “But raiding capital improvement funding to pay for Federal Aviation Administration operations is unprecedented and does not take into account the need to make critical safety, security and capacity improvements.”
Airport Improvement Grants were created by the 1982 Federal Aviation Administration authorization (PL 97-248) to fund runways, taxiways and other airport infrastructure critical for passenger and cargo operations. The money is raised by user fees, including taxes on airline tickets and aviation fuel.
While there is still more than $3 billion available annually for Airport Improvement Program grants, some are worried that further diversions from the fund to operations accounts will further erode the ability of American airports to compete with modern jetports around the world.
Even before the furloughs stemming from across-the-board budget cuts mandated by the 2011 deficit reduction agreement (PL 112-25) threatened to snarl aviation traffic through the busy summer travel period, U.S. airports were struggling to keep up with European, Asian and Middle Eastern nations that were sinking billions of dollars into expanding and improving their own facilities.
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 fared best at No. 30, and just three other American facilities — Denver, San Francisco and Atlanta — made the top 50. The top 10 airports were all in Asia or Europe, with Singapore and Seoul claiming the No. 1 and No. 2 spots.