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‘Think Tank’ Airport Studies Too Narrowly Focused

October 15, 2009 — The public discussion of airport funding formulas continues to burn bright as The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Brookings Institution, two well-known think tanks, released reports examining the perceived uneven apportionment of Airport Improvement Funds. (AIP) A study published in SubsidyScope,a publication of Pew’s Economic Policy Group concludes that the largest U.S. airports are underfunded while small general aviation airports receive more money than their capacity and service levels warrant. The Brookings study also highlights an apparent funding mismatch but focuses more on large metropolitan airports exceeding capacity in the near future despite a recent dip in air travel.

“The congestion at the major airports isn’t just a factor of money, it’s a factor of the airline’s operations, all trying to operate at the same time,” said EAA President/Chairman Tom Poberezny. “We need an integrated effort, we need the airlines, charter, we need private transportation, private-owned airplanes. We need the whole system.”

The Pew report seems to go directly at general aviation airports without caveat, save for a short paragraph near the end of the report that discusses the “controversy” over AIP funding. Pew says that billions of dollars went to non-commercial airports with low National Priority Ratings (NPR) which the FAA uses to determine disbursement of it AIP funds. The Pew report stated:

Nearly $2 billion for more than 3,100 airport construction and rehabilitation projects has been obligated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during the past five years even though the projects received low priority ratings, a Subsidyscope review of FAA data has found.

The Brookings report was more sweeping in its analysis, focusing more on the need for comprehensive strategies to address capacity, environmental impacts, (specifically pollution) and a lack of air traffic system modernization. Ninety nine percent of U.S. air passengers travel between the 100 largest metropolitan areas with the vast majority concentrated in 26 large metropolitan-wide hubs. Using government data, Brookings argues that these 26 areas are underfunded and face a crisis of capacity due in part to a large amount of short haul flights that clog the system. Brookings suggests that transportation officials could do more to offer ground based regional transportation such as light rail to alleviate the congestion problems that are predicted to intensify.

 The Brookings report like the one from Pew highlighted the grant process used by the FAA as contributing to the funding disparity. Brookings claims less than 40 percent of funds available for capital airport funds through the AIP and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)in 2009 were directed to the 26 metro areas:

Equally troubling is that many of the airports awarded funding should not have qualified due toinadequate credentials, specifically poor economic credentials and history of grant management problems.49 Sending a majority of this federal funding to airports that constitute a small minority of all passenger trips only serves to intensify the congestion-related pressures the country’s aviation system already experiences.

Poberezny feels the Pew and Brookings analyses of funding disbursements are too narrowly focused, largely missing the need for an overall transportation structure, “We can’t survive with just private or just a few major airports; we need both,” he said. “Some in the GA community feel the taxes they pay are going to subsidized areas and services that they don’t use either. The main thing is we need to have an integrated transportation system both on the ground and in the air.”

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