- Why did TSA hide “Quiet Skies”?
- Noise problem getting worse; solutions needed
- Another chance to expand PreCheck
- Resolving the FBO controversy
- New mobility threatens airport revenues
- Second Atlanta airport may be revived
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
The Boston Globe did us all a service by publishing reporter Jana Winter’s July 28th exposé of TSA’s previously undisclosed Quiet Skies program. She explained how this is a more-recent task for Federal Air Marshals (FAM), who are assigned to follow and observe specific individuals who are “not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base.” If you somehow make the cut, the FAMs observe you at the airport and then board the same plane as you do, observing you during the flight.
Winters was unable to obtain the entire “behavior checklist” used in this program, but the portions she printed are disturbing. For example, under “Subject was abnormally aware of surroundings,” FAMS were to make note of:
- Reversing or changing directions while moving through the airport;
- Attempting to change appearance by changing clothes or shaving, at the airport or on the plane;
- Using the reflection in storefront windows to identify surveillance;
- Observing the boarding gate area from afar;
- Boarded last; and,
- Observing other people who appear to be observing the FAM team.
Other topics, with their own subheads, include exhibiting various other behavioral indicators, having a different appearance from the photo provided to the FAMs, sleeping during the flight, and possessing electronic devices. I don’t know about you, but I could be observed doing a number of those things.
Winters and others have reported that some FAMs are unhappy about these assignments, considering them a waste of time and money, and distracting them from other duties. And civil liberties groups are understandably concerned. Two ranking members of the House Homeland Security Committee, Reps. Bennie Thompson (D, MS) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D, NJ) sent TSA a letter on July 31st complaining about the program.
TSA’s public defense of Quiet Skies is pretty lame. Spokesman Michael Bilello made this analogy: “In the world of law enforcement, this program’s core design is no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence and other information presents the need for watch and deterrence.” But a police beat is an area, not a targeted individual who is not on any watch list and is going about his or her business—and can only get on a plane after passing through TSA screening.
The question we should be asking is why FAMs have been given this additional role. Here is my hypothesis. It concerns both the much-criticized FAMs program itself, as well as TSA’s discredited (and supposedly ended) Behavior Detection Officer program. BDOs officially no longer exist, after reports by the GAO and the DHS Inspector General’s Office could find no evidence that BDOs have any effect on airport security. Likewise, serious studies of the FAM program have found that its costs vastly outweigh any benefits, given that aircraft are already protected from a takeover of the cockpit by means of reinforced/locked cockpit doors and far more armed pilots (FFDOs) than FAMs. If TSA wanted to avoid proposed cuts to the FAM budget, and still believed in “behavior detection,” converting part of the FAM workforce into unacknowledged BDOs would solve both problems.
At about the same time as the Boston Globe exposé, the DHS Inspector General released a new report, again questioning the value of FAMs, noting that the program has no effective performance measures and cannot fully account for how it spends its funds. It also dinged TSA for diverting one-third of the FAM budget and staff to ground-based operations such as VIPR (in which FAMs lurk around transit stations). “FAMs could not demonstrate how these activities contribute to TSA’s mission,” the report notes.
Frankly, if TSA wanted to make its activities more cost-effective, it would replace FAMs altogether by doing two things. First, require airlines to add secondary barriers at the front of the cabin so that cockpit crew could use the forward lavatory without risking a cockpit breach. Second, use part of the annual savings to expand the Federal Flight Deck Officer program to recruit and train a larger fraction of cockpit crews as armed officers.
In a growing number of large metro areas, residents who find themselves under newly changed arrival or departure paths are filing suit. The past month has brought news about actual or planned litigation concerning Burbank, BWI, and Reagan National, and FAA is still working to resolve complaints in Phoenix, where anti-noise litigation succeeded. And the much-needed reconfiguration of arrival and departure paths in the New York metro area—one way in which NextGen technology and procedures can de-conflict flight paths that originate more than 40 percent of all U.S. airspace delays—is already under attack before it even begins.
The far-more-precise flight paths made possible by FAA’s Required Navigation Performance (RNP) appear in most cases to reduce noise for a lot more people than those newly impacted by increased noise. But that doesn’t make any difference to homeowners and renters whose quality of life is suddenly made worse by repeated noisy overflights. To be sure, some of the noise complaint volume is exaggerated. The Wall Street Journal had a front-page story on August 25th about a readily available device called the Airnoise Button, leading off with the example of a San Diego resident who has used the device to lodge over 12,000 complaints with the San Diego Regional Airport Authority. So airports need to carefully analyze how many noise complaints are from a handful of activists pushing such a button all day long.
NASA has recently demonstrated dramatic noise reductions in tests using a Gulfstream III aircraft. During landings, the majority of noise comes from the airframe, not the engines. Combining the effects of a flexible wing flap, porous landing gear fairings, and alteration of airflow across the landing-gear well led to 70 percent less noise during landings. That’s a very large reduction, but (1) it affects only landings, and (2) even if FAA mandated it for all new jet aircraft, it would take several decades before all such planes were equipped.
A new threat to airports and airlines was unveiled on August 28th. Aviation Daily reported that Sens. Charles Schumer (D, NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D, NY) have announced legislation that would put the EPA, rather than FAA, in charge of airplane/airport noise. My guess is that this would lead to a more aggressive approach to aircraft noise, which neither airlines nor airports would welcome.
I suggest that in their own best interest, airports and airlines need to work together to propose meaningful relief for those newly impacted by aircraft noise due to either new runways or changed flight paths. One approach would be to buy noise easements from the affected property owners. They would have to be based on measured noise levels, so that as technology produces quieter planes and measured noise decreases, so would the annual payments to property owners. Yes, I know that’s a radical idea. But if continued growth in air travel depends on solving the noise problem, somebody is going to have to take action and spend money to solve it, and it should not be general taxpayers.
A less-drastic measure, to help encourage faster adoption of aircraft modifications to reduce noise, would be for airports to add a noise component to their landing fees. This has been standard practice for many years at privatized London Heathrow and Gatwick airports. To the best of my knowledge, they were not required to do this, but have opted to do it to reduce, over time, the noise exposure to airport neighbors.
If neither of those ideas appeals to you, I welcome other suggestions. It’s time for the aviation community to address this problem, or risk having the EPA or some other entity impose its own solution.
One of the best things TSA has done is to create a real trusted-traveler program—PreCheck—that subjects pre-vetted, low-risk air travelers to a streamlined checkpoint process. If 50 percent of each day’s airline passengers were PreCheck members (and if TSA had enough PreCheck lanes to handle them expeditiously) everyone would win. PreCheck members would continue to have a speedy trip through the checkpoint, other air travelers would face shorter lines, and TSA could focus more of its resources on higher-risk travelers.
But TSA is far from achieving that 50 percent goal. At a June hearing, Rep. John Katko (R, NY), who chairs the House Transportation Security Subcommittee, noted that the situation today is depressingly similar to the summer of 2016, when TSA had expected that 50 percent of passengers would use expedited screening, but only 27 percent actually did so. And that once again points to the limitations of how TSA recruits PreCheck members.
Politico (July 3rd) interviewed Chris McLaughlin, who was the top TSA official in setting up PreCheck. He suggests a “more retail” approach to recruitment, encouraging large employers to market the program, and providing self-service kiosks at airports where people could sign up. But two things stand in the way of this sensible approach. One is a federal law that requires fingerprints as part of the sign-up process—even though TSA itself tested algorithms devised by several big-data companies several years ago that performed as well as traditional fingerprint-based vetting. The other is the monopoly contractor responsible for current PreCheck recruitment, which continues to defend the fingerprint requirement (and its monopoly).
Senate legislation (S.1872), approved by the Commerce Committee in June, would allow TSA to contract with data companies that can demonstrate proper vetting of applicants without using fingerprints. It has been endorsed by the U.S. Travel Association, Global Business Travel Association, and Airports Council International-North America.
The opponent, of course, is the monopoly contractor, the former Morpho Trust, which now goes by the name IDEMIA. Its Vice President for Enrollment, Charlie Carroll, told Politico that they are OK with a change in the federal rules that would let vendors use mobile technology to capture fingerprints, but would oppose any other techniques such as name-based big-data vetting or facial recognition. U.S. Travel and other groups are fighting back, urging passage of the Senate bill as the best way to expand PreCheck enrollment. IDEMIA is trying to pre-empt via a new partnership with Staples, aiming to establish 200 enrollment locations at Staples stores by sometime next year, which would be a 50 percent increase from the current 400 (which are mostly located at airports and out-of-the-way DHS facilities).
Though I once held a Secret clearance, I’m no expert on background checks. But I find it difficult to believe that in our big-data era, airport security must still depend on old-fashioned fingerprints.
For the past year or more, a war of words has been under way between private-plane group AOPA and various airports around the country. It concerns business practices of Fixed Base Operators (FBOs), which are businesses at an airport that provide services to general and business aviation operators—including a place to park, refueling, and at larger airports, a lounge that may also offer food and drink.
FBOs can be either for-profit companies or enterprises operated by the airport itself. What seems to have set off the controversy is the wave of consolidation in the FBO industry over the past decade or two. A recent Airport Cooperative Research Program report (“Synthesis 86: Airport Operator Options for Delivery of FBO Services”) found that as of 2016 there were only 3,500 FBOs in operation, compared with around 10,000 during the 1980s. A growing number of the current FBOs are operated by chains, such as Signature Flight Support, but 47 percent of all FBOs are government-owned and run by the airport itself.
What has triggered AOPA’s complaints to FAA are several practices especially common with FBOs operated by chains: being a monopoly provider, charging higher prices than used to prevail, offering no place to park except at the FBO (which may require the purchase of fuel), and not allowing for self-service fueling. Last year AOPA filed what’s known as a Part 13 complaint with FAA over business practices at the FBOs at Asheville, NC, Key West, FL, and Waukegan, IL—each of which has a single FBO operated by Signature. The complaint contended that these airports were violating various “grant assurances” which every airport that receives federal AIP grants must agree to.
In response to these complaints, the Waukegan airport announced a no-charge tie-down (parking) area for GA planes and negotiated with the FBO to offer lower-priced avgas for self-service customers. AOPA withdrew that complaint, but the other two went on at FAA. At Key West, FAA rejected three of the four complaints, but did require the FBO and the airport to implement self-service fueling. But for Asheville, FAA rejected all the claims, finding that Signatures fees were “necessary and reasonable”—which AOPA considers unacceptable.
In a July 10 commentary on the blog JDA Journal, former FAA Chief Counsel Sandy Murdock pointed out that “the practical circumstances of an airport, particularly a physically constrained airport like [Key West] may create a locational monopoly,” and that it is virtually impossible for FAA’s limited staff to micromanage thousands of airport/FBO arrangements, each of which is tailored to the specifics of the airport in question.
Airport Business raised a provocative question in its June/July 2018 issue: “Should U.S. FBOs Adopt a European Model?” Author Curt Castagna, president of the Van Nuys and Long Beach airport associations, pointed out that an airport must comply with all FAA grant assurances, including the financial viability of its FBO. He explained that in Europe, many FBOs offer a menu of services at various prices, rather than pursuing the traditional U.S. model of bundled services, with a high fuel price to pay for the entire bundle, whether the aircraft operator needs the whole bundle or not. Castagna also noted that FAA’s 2017 document, “Q&As—FBO Industry Consolidation and Pricing Practices,” seeks to explain to private pilots the changing economics of GA airports and their FBOs in the post-9/11 era.
Castagna ended up arguing for a new U.S. FBO model that draws on the best practices of Europe and the United States. For example, “based on an airport’s unique operations, it may be appropriate for the airport sponsor [operator] to erect a self-service fueling station with parking designated for transient, light general aviation aircraft that do not require the fuel, ramp space, or pilot/passenger amenities provided by the FBO.” Or the airport could provide incentives for the FBO itself to do this.
The old adage, “If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen [only] one airport,” is just as true of GA airports as it is of air carrier airports. The changing role of FBOs needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, not via new FAA mandates or (please, no!) by political interference.
Transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Lyft and Uber have begun cutting into the long-standing revenue streams that airports derive from parking facilities and rental car companies. Airport bondholders and rating agencies are already paying attention, and some airports are taking steps to deal with the problem.
Airport consultant Steve Van Beek has noted that TNCs have become a preferred option for trips to California airports, citing TNCs recently accounting for as much as 70 percent of paid trips to San Francisco International (SFO). The Bond Buyer reports that Lyft has service agreements with 240 airports and Uber with more than 100. The CFO of DFW Airport told a recent Bond Buyer conference that “On an average day, we use [only] about 60 percent to 65 percent of our parking spaces.” Airports are also experiencing large-scale curbside congestion from TNC vehicles, especially when several wide-body airliners unload within a short period of time.
A newer problem for some airports is the growth of a kind of Airbnb for personal cars. Companies such as Turo, Maven, and Getaround arrange for individual vehicle owners to make their cars available as an alternative to a conventional rental car. Enterprise and other major rental car companies are lobbying heavily that those vehicles be (1) required to use airport rental-car facilities rather than the terminal curbside and (2) that they be taxed the same as rental-car companies. Legal battles are under way at BWI and SFO, among others. Turo et al. argue that they are not rental car companies, own no vehicles, and are another form of TNC and hence should pay only the same fees as Uber and Lyft and have the same access to curbsides—and I think they have the better of the argument.
Most airports’ first line of defense is to require TNCs to sign a service agreement and pay a fee to the airport for each pickup they make. These are early days, and it is not clear whether the pickup fees currently being charged are enough to offset emerging declines in parking and rental car revenue.
A second move is to reconsider how much parking the airport will need in coming years. Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson, for example, has scaled back its plans for added parking decks. The north side deck plan has been cut from eight levels to four, and plans for the eight-floor south deck are being reviewed. Phoenix Sky Harbor is considering a plan to privatize its on-airport parking by inviting private-sector companies to bid to build a replacement facility when 3,700 current spaces are demolished to make way for a new terminal, and having the same company operate all the on-airport parking. That would shift the risk of future excess capacity from the airport to the parking company’s investors.
Other airports are working to make airport parking more convenient. DFW is developing an online tool that would give discounts for those who book parking in advance. Similar systems are in operation at Phoenix, Vancouver, and Ottawa airports. Parking guidance systems (PGS) are another approach, under which the system guides parkers to the nearest vacant space; by making it easier for a customer to find a space rather than giving up, PGS supposedly increases space utilization by 10 to 15 percent.
Surface transportation experts are uncertain whether the advent of driverless robo-taxis will lead to significant declines in vehicle ownership. But eliminating the expense of a human driver should eventually make TNCs a more affordable alternative than driving to the airport and paying for parking or taking a conventional cab. This underscores the importance of TNC fees to maintain airports’ planned revenue streams.
Long-time readers of this newsletter will recall my coverage of the attempts by Paulding County, GA officials and private company Propeller Airports to convert the county’s general aviation airport into a commercial airport to be called Silver Comet Field. Extensive anti-airport NIMBY opposition ensued, despite the fact that the property on which the airport sits was originally acquired by the City of Atlanta as a possible site for a second airport. As usual in Atlanta, Delta Airlines rolled out its big guns to deny the need for any additional airport, despite the benefits that would accrue to people in Atlanta’s northwestern suburbs. Anti-airport people were elected to the county commission, and that slowed down the FAA’s process for completing the required environmental assessment (needed for the airport to obtain FAA permission to offer commercial service).
I was dismayed but not surprised at the end of June to read that FAA was terminating its environmental review due to not receiving needed data from the county. But in late July came news that three Paulding County commissioners who oppose commercialization had been voted out of office. The winners will face opposition in the November general election, but the possibility now exists for the county to refile with the FAA. Airport director Terry Tibbitts told reporters, in response to FAA’s termination of the review, that FAA had wanted 11 revisions to the draft environmental report between late March and late May. “We believe that FAA acted in bad faith to force an impossible deadline on us, and knowing our position, followed up with an immediate termination of the Part 139 application.” It would appear that the county could re-file its request, assuming the new county commission is on board with this.
One other positive sign is that the Georgia Senate study committee that is looking into converting Hartsfield Jackson from a city-owned airport to one managed by a metro-area airport authority will also study the need for a second airport. In a written statement, reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (June 22nd), committee chairman Sen. Burt Jones said the committee will “consider the possibility of adding a secondary airport hub modeling other [states] with the same population density as Georgia.”
These are early days, but the idea of a second airport for metro Atlanta has gained new life.
$18 Billion Hong Kong Airport Expansion Under Way. Strong growth in both passengers and flights is supportive of the Hong Kong Airport (HKG) expansion program, the world’s largest. HKG’s latest annual report said the project is on schedule, aiming to add a third runway and expand both current terminals. Reclamation work to create land for the new runway is proceeding, and detailed design of the Terminal 2 expansion is largely completed, Aviation Daily reported in July.
London Gatwick Commits to $1.48 Billion Expansion. To accommodate a projected 53 million passengers a year by 2023, privately owned LGW has announced $1.48 billion in additional capital spending between now and that year. The new commitment will bring total investment, since the 2009 change of ownership from BAA, to $4.08 billion. Expansion of Pier 6 will add six gates and aircraft stands, while modifications to Pier 5 will enable its use by Airbus A-380s.
ADP Gains Majority of Jordan Airports. Aeroports de Paris, via its ADP International, has obtained a 25-year concession giving it 51 percent of Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan. Co-shareholders include Meridiam and the Islamic Development Bank. The concession is actually for 51 percent of Jordan’s Airport International Group, which also includes several smaller airports. Several prior shareholders recycled their previous investments in AIG, including Abu Dhabi’s Invest AD and Kuwait’s Noor Financial Investment Company.
Fraport Under Way on Major Expansion Projects. Global airport company Fraport has received a building permit for a new pier at Frankfurt Airport. The new Pier G will begin construction in spring 2019 and will become part of a new Terminal 3. Pier G will be able to handle 4-5 million passengers per year. In Peru, Fraport is planning to invest $1.5 billion in expanding Lima Airport, including a second runway and a new terminal complex.
Cuts to Small-Airport Subsidies May Be Considered. The Essential Air Services (EAS) program was created as part of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act 40 years ago—as a 10-year program to help small airports adjust to a more-competitive airline market. It’s still in operation 40 years later and has grown significantly over the years. The Administration’s FY 2019 budget proposes reforms that would cut the program’s cost by 38 percent. Joel Szabat, currently undergoing hearings as the next DOT Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs, told a Senate hearing last month that proposed reforms to eliminate waivers of existing rules would focus EAS on small airports farthest away from airports with larger amounts of airline service.
Common-Use Terminal Equipment Gaining Adherents. Airports large and small are moving toward common-use equipment in their terminals. While saving money for airlines, common-use equipment also gives the airport more flexibility in making use of space—in check-in areas as well as in gate areas. Phoenix Sky Harbor International is going common-use as it modernizes and expands Terminal 3, with common-use applied at both ticket counters and gates. At Newark Liberty Airport, the new Terminal One, under construction and planned for opening in 2021, will be all common-use: IT systems, check-in counters, and gates. And in Hartford, Bradley International has already rolled out common-use ticketing kiosks and gates.
St. Louis Sets Privatization Timeline. Last month saw the first meeting of the Airport Advisory Working Group. Its task is to develop the process by which the city government will seek and review bids from private investors for a long-term public-private partnership lease of the airport, under the FAA’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program. Legal and financial advisors outlined an 18-month timeline for the process. The Working Group consists of seven members, from the city government and the airport commission. If St. Louis Lambert does get privatized under the Pilot Program, it would be the largest U.S. airport to go that route, thus far.
TSA May Merge PreCheck and Global Entry. In a July 19th interview, TSA chief David Pekoske told Politico that he expects TSA and Customs & Border Protection to merge their trusted traveler programs “within the relatively near term.” He said that he and CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan had held several meetings at which this was discussed. He also said that TSA would accept CBP results from biometric entry and exit programs.
Second Sydney Airport Moving Forward. Western Sydney Airport Company has awarded a contract to move 1.8 million cubic meters of soil on the approved site of the new Western Sydney Airport. And it awarded a second contract to Bechtel, to manage construction of the airport. Initial operations are planned to begin in 2026. When it opens, WSA will have a single 12,000-ft. runway and a terminal sized for 10 million passengers per year. Bechtel is currently managing expansion projects at London Gatwick and London City Airports.
Fraport USA Wins Nashville Airport Concessions. Nashville International Airport has selected Fraport USA (formerly Airmall) for a 10-year contract to manage all retail concessions at the airport (BNA). The company currently manages concessions at Baltimore Washington International (BWI), Cleveland Hopkins International (CLE), JFK Terminal 5, and Pittsburgh International (PIT). The company pioneered branded retail operations and street pricing at U.S. airports.
Only Half of Cuban Airports Inspected, Says GAO. In a report released July 12th, the Government Accountability Office found that TSA failed to meet its goal of inspecting all Cuban airports with flights to the United States. And of those it did inspect, some did not comply with international security standards for access and quality control, aircraft and in-flight security, passenger and baggage screening, and access control (fencing). Aside from that, everything was fine.
Colombia Plans Large-Scale Airport P3 Program. State infrastructure agency ANI has released a $2.3 billion airport expansion plan, which the newly elected government headed by Ivan Duque is expected to implement. It includes the construction of a second international airport for Bogota, adding a third runway to Bogota’s existing El Dorado International Airport, and upgrading nine regional airports. ANI already manages a similar large-scale P3 program to upgrade and modernize Colombia’s highways.
New Mumbai International Airport Reaches Financial Close. In early July, the financing for the $2.3 billion New Mumbai airport was finalized. This “greenfield” airport is being developed under a long-term P3 (DBFOM) concession. The concession company consists of GVK (74 percent) and CIDCO (26 percent). The concession is for 30 years, with a potential 10-year extension. The first phase, targeted for late 2019, is designed for 10 million annual passengers, and the eventual capacity will be 60 million, with two parallel runways.
Bulgaria and Montenegro Seeking Airport Concessions. After an unsuccessful effort in 2016-17, the Bulgarian government has revamped its approach to the modernization of Sofia International Airport. It is offering a 35-year concession seeking a team that will develop a third terminal and carry out other upgrades estimated to cost $4.2 billion. Initial responses from interested parties are due by October 22nd. Montenegro is also seeking a concessionaire to modernize the country’s two international airports: Podgorica and Tivat, as well as to study the feasibility of adding two new airports.
Fraport Sells Hanover Airport Statke to iCON Flughafen. Global airport company Fraport has sold its 30 percent stake in Hanover Airport to a subsidiary of iCON Infrastructure Group, an infrastructure investment firm. Fast-growing Hanover Airport is owned 35 percent by the city government of Hanover and 35 percent by a company owned by the state of Lower Saxony. This is a fairly typical ownership structure for partly-privatized German airports.
“In 2017, political scientists Mark Stewart and John Mueller published a detailed evaluation of airport security measures based on the cost to implement and the benefit in terms of lives saved. They concluded that most of what our government does either isn’t effective at preventing terrorism or is simply too expensive to justify the security it does provide. Others might disagree with their conclusions, but their analysis provides enough detailed information to have a meaningful argument. The more we politicize security, the worse we are. People are generally terrible judges of risk. We fear threats in the news out of proportion with the actual dangers. We overestimate rare and spectacular risks, and underestimate commonplace ones. We fear specific ‘movie-plot threats’ that we can bring to mind. That’s why we fear flying over driving, even though the latter kills about 35,000 people each year—about a 9/11’s worth of deaths each month. And it’s why the idea of TSA eliminating security at minor airports fills us with fear. . . . Very little today is immune to politics, including the TSA. It drove most of the agency’s decisions in the early years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That the TSA is willing to consider politically unpopular ideas is a credit to the organization. Let’s let them perform their analyses in peace.”
—Bruce Schneier, “Don’t Fear the TSA Cutting Airport Security. Be Glad That They’re Talking About It,” The Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2018
“Battery technology is decades away from being able to do more than lift a few people in the air with a conventional takeoff plane. The dream of flying electric cars will stay a dream for quite some time. . . .Hybrid technology is a far more realistic goal, and it might be feasible in the 2030s.”
—Richard Aboulafia, Teal Group, in Andrew J. Hawkins, “Electric Flight Is Coming, but the Batteries Aren’t Ready,” The Verge, Aug. 14, 2018