GAO urges regional planning to address airport congestion

 - March 30, 2010, 8:08 AM

After conducting a study of regional airports at the request of two congressmen, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recommended that the federal government fund airport projects that are consistent with regional airport system plans (Rasp) that would help develop additional airport capacity.

The GAO identified which airports are currently or will be significantly congested and the potential benefits of regional airport planning, assessed how regions with congested airports use regional airport planning and identified factors that hinder or aid the development of Rasps.

“Except in the Boston region, the recommendations made in Rasps that we have reviewed have not been systematically integrated into airport capital plans that currently guide airport decision making and FAA funding,” the GAO found. “Rather, both airport sponsors and the FAA can choose to ignore Rasps, or to use them selectively, even though the federal government has contributed millions of dollars for their development.”

To ensure that federal Airport Improvement Program funds are spent with maximum effect and to improve the level of regional- and airport-level coordination, the GAO recommended that the U.S. Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to develop an FAA review process for regional airport system plans to ensure that they meet FAA standards and airport system planning guidance, as well as provide technical support for regional planners undertaking such planning; and use the agency’s existing statutory authority to give priority to funding airport projects that are consistent with Rasps. The GAO said the DOT “generally agreed” with the recommendations.    

Capacity Management beyond NextGen

The GAO study was requested by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), the ranking member on the committee’s aviation subcommittee.

“In the past, I have pointed out that NextGen is not a silver bullet to our airspace capacity problems,” said Mica, in reference to the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System. “Increased demand will not only require some additional infrastructure, but better management of existing capacity.

“According to the GAO [study], even if NextGen, airspace redesign and runway expansion efforts are implemented, 14 of the nation’s largest airports will face severe congestion by 2025,” he continued. “Even with other aviation system improvements, the GAO’s findings demonstrate that we also need better system planning to expand capacity in the near term.”

In a letter accompanying the GAO report to the congressmen, the agency confirmed that a recent study found that congestion is concentrated in major metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, and the situation is worsening over time.

The National Airspace System (NAS) is plagued by congestion and delays, with nearly one in four arriving flights delayed at major airports, the GAO pointed out.
“The FAA and others forecast that more airports and regions will be congested in the future, even if planned infrastructure and technological improvements occur,” the GAO told the lawmakers. “However, many regions that contain congested airports also have alternate airports that might be able to provide some congestion relief.”

Mica and Petri noted that congestion and resulting delays in the NAS cause great inconvenience to passengers, harmfully affect the environment and impose high hidden costs (a Senate committee has estimated that number to be as high as $41 billion) on a struggling economy.

The GAO explained that because regional airport planning is advisory, competing interests can derail development and implementation. Metropolitan planning organizations generally develop Rasps, but they have no authority over airport development. That authority rests with airports, which are not required to incorporate planning recommendations into their capital plans, and with the FAA, which makes funding decisions on the basis of national priorities.

In addition, airport, community and airline interests might conflict in a region. For example, Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) does not support planning efforts that might divert traffic from its airport to alternate regional airports. By contrast, aligned interests and FAA involvement might aid regional planning and implementation, as has occurred in the Boston region.

Late last year, a bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania state legislature that would create a regional authority to own and operate PHL and the Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE), aimed at reducing delays in Philadelphia. However, when Pennsylvania state Rep. Bryan Lentz proposed a similar bill three years ago, it was opposed by the City of Philadelphia and the Lehigh Northampton Airport Authority, which owns and operates ABE. While that bill received a state House committee hearing, it was never brought up for a vote.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, what Lentz really would like to see is a tristate authority that includes Delaware and New Jersey. That way, airlines might also make greater use of airports in Atlantic City, N.J., where there are now only a few daily flights, and Trenton, N.J., and Wilmington, Del., which currently have no commercial service.