- Congress expands airport privatization program
- Why might airport owners opt for long-term P3 leases?
- Congress finally reauthorizes TSA
- JFK and Newark: new terminals but no new runways
- Can Mexico City’s new airport be saved?
- French airport company expands into the United States
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
In the FAA reauthorization bill passed by Congress this fall, a little-noticed provision greatly expanded what used to be known as the Airport Privatization Pilot Program, enacted by Congress in 1996 and slightly expanded from five to 10 airports in 2012. In keeping with the idea that airport privatization was a new and untried (in the United States) idea, the original pilot program permitted only five airports to be long-term leased. It also said that only one of those could be a large hub (as defined by FAA) and that at least one must be a general aviation (GA) airport. And it imposed a rather lengthy and convoluted approval process, by airlines serving the airport in question and by FAA.
The first and most important change made by Sec.160 of the FAA reauthorization act is to remove the numerical and categorical limitations. Henceforth, any U.S. airport may be long-term leased, without limit. That means the situation that prevailed for six years, when the City of Chicago held the only “slot” in the program reserved for a large hub airport, cannot re-occur. The proposed lease of one large hub cannot hold up or preclude other large hubs from seeking to do likewise.
Accordingly, the program has been renamed the Airport Investment Partnership Program. That’s not mere words, either. The term “privatization” as used in the U.K. and some other European countries generally means the sale of all or part of the ownership of the airport in question. Since both the 1996 law and the 2018 revised version permit only long-term leases, these deals are inherently long-term public-private partnerships (P3s) between the airport owner (city, county, state, etc.) and the private consortium that wins a competitive process to lease, improve, operate, and manage the airport.
As infrastructure attorney John Schmidt of Mayer Brown in Chicago (who advised the governments of Chicago and Puerto Rico on airport P3 leases) has pointed out in an October 9th memorandum, another important change is that henceforth long-term P3 leases can be structured in which the public-sector partner has a part-interest in the special-purpose entity created to manage and operate the airport for the term of the lease. These kinds of shared-control agreements are increasingly common in Europe, including in France and Germany. Politically, they may reduce opposition to U.S. airport P3 leases for fear that the public entity will “lose control” of the airport (though that can be addressed in the long-term lease agreement via an array of negotiated performance measures, etc.).
Schmidt also notes that although the previous law permitted the FAA to exempt the airport owner from having to repay previous federal airport grants if it leased the airport, the new law automatically exempts the airport owner from having to do this. This removes an obstacle that increased the risk of potential U.S. airport P3 deals compared to those in the rest of the world. The previous requirement was inconsistent with Executive Order 12803 on Infrastructure Privatization (issued by President George H.W. Bush in 1992), as well as being grossly unfair, since the airport is in any case still required to comply with an array of “grant assurances” in exchange for having received those federal grants.
In another small but important change, the new law will make it somewhat easier for airport owners to do serious assessments of whether to make use of long-term P3 leases. Doing this responsibly requires detailed legal and financial analysis, which is generally beyond the experience of city or state legal and financial staff. So the new law allows FAA to make grants of up to $750,000 for any U.S. airports that wishes to analyze whether and how to go about engaging in P3 leases under the Airport Investment Partnership Program.
Some supporters of airport P3s are disappointed that the new law did not change one provision of the original pilot program that is considered a uniquely U.S. obstacle to getting to yes: the requirement for airline approval via a double super-majority. Specifically, 65 percent of all the airlines serving the airport must approve of the deal terms and also airlines representing at least 65 percent of the annual landed weight at the airport. The good news on this point is that airlines involved with three such long-term P3 lease deals have accepted the negotiated deal terms that were acceptable to private-sector bidders. Those were Southwest at Midway Airport, American and JetBlue at San Juan International, and American, JetBlue and United at Westchester County, NY. Of those three deals, Midway failed to obtain financing, San Juan went through successfully, and Westchester is still pending, amidst a change of political leadership.
Around the world, there are many reasons for governments to seek private investment and management of airports. In many developing countries, traditionally-run airports have not kept pace with the growth in air travel, and could benefit from additional investment and world-class management. In the USA, airport managements are generally competent, and tax-exempt revenue bonds have long been available to finance expansion (along with federal AIP grants, of course with many strings attached).
When reporters, public officials, or would-be airport investors ask me which categories of U.S. airports are the most likely candidates, I have suggested several. One is airports with a history of crony capitalism in awarding contracts for various functions such as retail services (shops, food & beverage, etc.). This would only likely be the case if a serious reform movement won control of the city or county legislative body and decided that only a major change in airport governance would fix the problem. Cronyism like this is most often seen in airports run as departments of city government, and where the airport CEO is a political appointee subject to replacement each time a new mayor takes office.
A category that may overlap with the above is cities or counties with serious budget problems, leaving them unable to invest in other needed infrastructure or to shore up seriously under-funded public employee pension funds. Elected officials and city or county managers seldom realize that they own assets with large value that could be realized via long-term P3 lease transactions. The term that has come into use to describe a policy of extracting the asset value of an infrastructure facility in order to use the proceeds for other needed facilities is infrastructure asset recycling.
Australia is a pioneer in such asset recycling, though only recently adopting it as a federal policy that encouraged its state governments to sell or long-term-lease assets such as seaports and electricity infrastructure in order to use the proceeds for additional state or municipal infrastructure. This history is recounted in my new Reason Foundation policy study being released today. The study recounts several U.S. examples, such as the long-term P3 leases of the San Juan, Puerto Rico airport and the Indiana Toll Road.
It then goes on to estimate in broad terms the potential asset values of several categories of U.S. public-sector infrastructure, including airports. Drawing on such P3 transactions worldwide since 2008, the study reports that sales and long-term P3 leases of airports generated asset values in the range of 10 to 35 times the airport’s current EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation & amortization). Applying that range of EBITDA multiples to the 61 largest U.S. airports finds that they would have an aggregate net asset value of between $250 and $360 billion.
In typical long-term P3 lease transactions, the present value of the entire stream of lease payment (over, say, a 50-year period) is usually paid up-front. After existing airport bonds are retired, what is left is the net asset value, which can be used to pay for other needed infrastructure. The study used figures from two specific airports as examples. The net proceeds from a P3 lease of Baltimore Washington International (BWI) was estimated as $1.9 billion, and that of Louisville (SDF) was put at $538 million. Actual values would depend on various details negotiated in the long-term P3 lease agreement, which must receive airline approval per the provisions of the new federal Airport Partnership Investment Program, as well as meeting the goals of the would-be private investors. A typical bidder would likely consist of one or more infrastructure investment funds (and/or public pension funds) and a world-class airport company.
This discussion has immediate relevance to two cases that were awarded slots in the existing federal program: Lambert St. Louis International Airport and Westchester County (NY) Airport. In the case of St. Louis, the explicit rationale for considering a P3 lease is to liberate the airport’s asset value to invest in other St. Louis infrastructure. The city’s evaluation process is under way, with legal and financial consultants working with city and airport officials to study and assess what a deal might look like and what the proceeds might be. Last month city officials began a series of public meetings in response to calls for any airport lease to be put to a public vote.
Lambert handles almost twice as many annual passengers as already-leased San Juan International and would be the first large mainland airport to be leased under the federal program. If the deal goes through, it could have a catalytic effect on other cities with unmet infrastructure needs and a large airport asset from which they receive no direct financial benefits.
In an unexpected move, Congress combined various proposed TSA reform measures into the TSA Modernization Act and added that measure to the “must-pass” FAA reauthorization bill that was enacted into law last month. This was the first substantive reform of TSA since 2002, when the agency was folded into the then-new Department of Homeland Security.
While much of the legislation consists of technical clean-ups of obsolete language, as well as a three-year budget authorization, there are also substantive changes. One of the most important, proposed by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR), would end the siphoning off of passenger security fee revenue for deficit reduction, a move long urged by the airline industry. That siphoning was authorized in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, as one of many “pay-fors” to offset that measure’s spending increases. The siphoning was extended until FY 2027 in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. So the new law ends this practice only for FY 2027 and 2028. This will (at least temporarily) return those security charges to being purely user fees, rather than being partially a tax to support the government’s general fund.
Other changes require TSA within 18 months to post real-time checkpoint waiting times, establish standards for explosive-detecting canines, and strengthen airport worker security requirements. It also officially renames the provision under which airports can opt out of TSA screening (by using TSA-selected contractors) as the Screening Partnership Program.
PreCheck comes in for two important changes. The first would restrict airport PreCheck lanes solely to those enrolled in a federal trusted traveler program (including Global Entry), except for specified exceptions (e.g., young children accompanying a PreCheck member). The other change calls for expanding PreCheck by requiring TSA to partner with at least two private-sector companies to develop additional ways for people to enroll in the program. There are also numerical goals for enrollment, with a target of 10 million people by Oct. 1, 2020.
Cockpit security is addressed via two new provisions. One would increase TSA support for training pilots as armed Federal Flight Deck Officers, including the creation of firearms training facilities for pilots enrolling in the program. Independent research has found that FFDOs are far more cost-effective than Federal Air Marshals (FAMs). Second, the act calls for secondary barriers to be installed between the cockpit and the cabin on all new jetliners. Secondary barriers have also found to be a cost-effective alternative to FAMs, since they are a one-time cost rather than an ongoing cost to TSA and the airlines, which are required to make (often) first-class seats available to FAMs. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), while welcoming this change, continues to call for secondary barriers to be added to all jetliners, rather than only to new ones. ALPA also wants secondary barriers on cargo planes, but the Cargo Airline Association is opposed. CAA president Steve Alterman points out that very few people are on board cargo planes other than the cockpit crew (e.g., couriers or animal handlers), and those people are subject to screening, in accord with TSA regulations for cargo aircraft.
The 2018 J.D. Power U.S. Airport Satisfaction Study results were released on September 25th. They were based on surveys of more than 40,000 passengers. Of the 20 largest airports (defined as mega-airports), New York’s JFK ranked 15th, and Newark Liberty ranked dead last at 20th.
On October 4th, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released details of a $13 billion JFK modernization plan, of which $12 billion will be private funding and the remaining $1 billion will come from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The plan’s focus is on major reconstruction and replacement of JFK’s existing terminals (except privately operated Terminal 4). Besides the $10 billion planned for terminal modernization, some $2 billion will be allocated to infrastructure improvements, with the remaining $1 billion devoted to improved ground transportation. The timeline calls for all of this to be completed by 2025, which is very optimistic, but we shall see.
On October 15th, the Port Authority unveiled its proposal for modernizing Newark’s terminals, starting with a $2.7 billion Terminal 1, to replace the antiquated and overcrowded Terminal A. This project, for which ground-breaking was held last month, is intended as the first step in modernizing EWR’s aging terminals.
When all the new EWR and JFK terminals are in operation, it is likely that both airports will improve their passenger-satisfaction scores somewhat. However, better terminals will do little or nothing to improve the abysmal delays air travelers will continue to experience at both (actually, at all three New York airports, including LaGuardia, which is well along on its own terminal replacement effort). Two changes are needed to address congestion and delays. One is airspace redesign because the approach and departure patterns of the three airports (plus Teterboro, the region’s principal general aviation airport) conflict with one another. That task is the responsibility of the FAA, which is supposed to be doing this as part of its NextGen modernization—but there is little progress to report thus far, and there will be large opposition from residents who will inevitably be affected by changes in flight patterns.
The other needed change is more runways. Back in 2011, the well-respected Regional Plan Association (RPA) produced a detailed study of the feasibility of adding at least one runway at both JFK and Newark. The Port Authority itself was a principal sponsor of that study, which changed the conversation among business and aviation groups from the previous acceptance that runway additions were politically infeasible, and probably technically infeasible. In a new report this year, RPA upped the ante, calling for two new runways at JFK.
The Port Authority’s executive director, Rick Cotton, told the Wall Street Journal that “Right now, a new runway is not on the table” for JFK. And that, of course, is the path of least (political) resistance for the agency. But precisely because it will take a long political battle to get to yes on a new runway for either EWR or JFK, the time to begin that effort is now. Otherwise, expect large-scale disappointment when the splashy new terminals fail to improve the overall performance of these critically important airports.
In a sham referendum at the end of October, two-thirds of the nominal votes favored cancelling the one-third-finished $13 billion airport intended to replace the existing, capacity-constrained Mexico City Airport. The majority of those voting opted instead for incoming president Andres Manual Lopez Obrador’s plan to add capacity to an existing military base north of the city to supplement the existing airport.
The vote was widely recognized as a political stunt. Hastily organized, it set out ballot boxes in about 500 municipalities, staffed by volunteers from Lopez Obrador’s party, and with no check on people voting multiple times. The votes cast represented only a bit over 1 percent of Mexico’s 129 million people. Independent polls earlier this year suggested two to one support for the new airport. But in response to the referendum’s result, Lopez Obrador announced that his incoming government would scrap the partly-built new airport.
That decision, if carried out, will have multiple consequences. First, holders of $6 billion in new-airport bonds will demand to be repaid, and it’s not clear where the government will get the money. Second, there will likely be interference between flights from the to-be-expanded military base and the existing Mexico City International. Third, the government would be writing off some $3 billion that has already been spent on the new airport. Fourth, the limited capacity of the two-airport system will limit growth in service to Mexico City (whose annual passengers have been growing by nearly 10 percent per year).
Fortunately, there is an alternative to Lopez Obrador’s ill-conceived plan. On October 8th, Engineering News-Record reported that Lopez Obrador himself suggested in a video that the new airport could be made self-financing since it could be offered to the private sector in a concession and therefore would not require any budget funds. The current team building the airport under contract to the government had asked for $4.66 billion in public funds to complete the airport, which Lopez Obrador rejected as “not possible—we wouldn’t be able to finance that.” But the president-elect added that if the business leaders adopted the concession model based on private finance, “In that case, yes, we could consider the possibility of continuing construction” of the new airport.
As most readers of this newsletter know, nearly all the large airports in Mexico were privatized more than a decade ago, and the country has several internationally competitive airport companies. Global infrastructure funds are actively seeking viable airport investments, including the development of new terminals and new airports in Latin America. There would appear to be the makings of a win-win deal here, assuming that (a) the current developers were serious in suggesting a private-finance alternative and (b) that Lopez Obrador was also serious about accepting such an approach. Whether both positions were merely posturing remains to be seen.
Vinci Airports, which in recent years has become one of the world’s leading investor-owned airport developer/operators, recently acquired the portfolio of U.S. airport contracts held by Airports Worldwide. In the United States, these include the concessions for the terminals at Orlando-Sanford Airport; full management contracts for Hollywood/Burbank (CA) Airport, Ontario International Airport (CA), Macon Downtown Airport (GA), and Middle Georgia Regional Airport; and partial management contracts for Atlantic City International (NJ), Raleigh-Durham International (NC), and part of the international terminal at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Outside the United States, Vinci has also acquired ownership of Belfast International in Northern Ireland and Skavsta Airport near Stockholm, and a 45 percent stake in the Quiros International Airport in Costa Rica. Prior to the Airports Worldwide acquisition, Vinci Airports already held a number of concessions and management contracts in France, Latin America, and Japan. On completion of the acquisition, Vinci Airports has responsibilities at 44 airports, serving a total of 180 million annual passengers.
Needless to say, should U.S. public policy lead to more airports being offered for lease under long-term P3 concessions, Vinci Airports will now be better-positioned to compete for such business.
France Prepares to Sell Aeroports de Paris. In mid-September, the French government announced that it will sell its 50.6 percent stake in the company that owns the Paris airports, ADP. The auction process is expected to begin in mid-2019, assuming the French parliament passes the required legislation—the government’s Action Plan for Corporate Growth Transformation—which is pending in the National Assembly (the lower house). The government’s ADP stake is estimated to be worth $10.1 billion. Inspiratia Infrastructure reports that interested acquirers include Atlantia, GIP, IFM Investors, and Vinci.
Three Shortlisted for Hokkaido Airports Concession. Inframation News reported in September that Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism has selected the three best-qualified teams to bid for a 30-year P3 concession for the seven Hokkaido airports, estimated to be worth up to $1.4 billion. The three short-listed teams are led by ADP International, HKK, and Vinci-Orix. Final bids will be due by May 2019, with the finalist to be selected two months later.
FAA Clears Paine Field for Commercial Service. A revised environmental assessment of the impacts of commercial air service from Paine Field, in northern Seattle suburb Everett, gave the project a clean bill of health. The assessment was based on the estimated 24 round-trip flights per day that Alaska, Southwest, and United plan to operate starting next year. The passenger terminal being developed by Propeller Airports is nearing completion, and Propeller has announced that McGee Air Services will provide ground handling and passenger mobility services for the airlines serving the airport. And Republic Parking will manage all parking, including valet and curbside concierge services.
TSA Delays Rule on Airport Employee Screening. Last month TSA announced a second delay in its proposed new rule on criteria for airport employee access to secure areas. Originally the rule was to be released by this September, but had been delayed to February 2019. But the October announcement said the rule will not be ready until August 2019. Among other things, the rule is expected to expand the list of previous crimes that would disqualify an employee from gaining access to secure areas.
Jamaica Selects GAP for Kingston Airport Concession. Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico (GAP), which is part of the concession company at Montego Bay Airports, has been selected as the preferred bidder for the 25-year concession to upgrade and operate Norman Manley International Airport in the capital city of Kingston. GAP currently operates 12 airports in Mexico under 50-year concessions. In Montego Bay, GAP is the largest of several partners in managing Sangster International Airport.
TSA Plans More Checkpoint CT Scanners. Three-dimensional scanning via computed tomography (CT) is performing so well at 13 airports that TSA has announced plans to buy 200 more CT scanners in FY 2019, rather than the 145 originally planned. The 200 would cover only about 10 percent of TSA’s 2,200 screening lanes, so it will be a number of years before most airline passengers can enjoy the benefits of faster and more accurate scanning of their carry-on bags.
49 percent of Luton Airport to Gain New Owners. The European Commission has approved the acquisition of the 49 percent ownership stake in London Luton Airport currently held by private investment firm Ardian. Acquiring that stake will be a joint venture of UK fund AMP Capital Investors and Spanish airports operator Aena Internacional. Over the last five years, Luton has been one of the U.K.’s fastest-growing airports.
LaGuardia AirTrain Getting Closer. The long-sought project to bring rail service between New York’s LGA and mid-town Manhattan is moving forward, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in June to permit the State DOT to acquire right of way via eminent domain for the new link between LGA and the Mets-Willets Point rail station, which is planned as a 6-minute trip. Passengers will connect there with Long Island Railroad trains to either Grand Central or Penn Station, taking another 16 minutes. Including transfer time, the total is planned to be no more than 30 minutes. The schedule calls for the new link to be under construction by 2020 and completed in 2022.
Charles de Gaulle Express Facing Litigation. The planned $2 billion high-speed rail link between Paris and CDG Airport has been held up by litigation from the city of Mitry-Mory and an anti-train organization. A decision on the suit is expected by sometime this month. Assuming the suit is resolved, the project is to be developed by ADP and state railroad SNCF. Construction of the all-new line is expected to take six years, and the hope is that it will be completed in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
St. Louis Airport Bonds Upgraded. Moody’s Investors Service has increased its rating on the revenue bonds of Lambert St. Louis International Airport from A3 to A2 and the outlook to “stable.” Moody’s cited positive fundamentals such as passenger growth (up 5.4 percent in FY 2018) and positive trends in liquidity and leverage. The rating affects revenue bonds worth $657 million. The city government is actively considering a long-term P3 lease of the airport.
Fraport Breaks Ground on New Thessaloniki Terminal. Global airport company Fraport broke ground Sept. 19th on a €100 million second terminal for Makedonia Airport in Greece’s second-largest city. Under its long-term concession for 14 Greek airports, Fraport will also reconstruct Thessaloniki’s runway and apron, and install a modern baggage system. Overall, the company is committed to investing €415 million in the country’s 14 regional airports during the term of the concession.
TSA Retaliates Against Employees, Says House Report. Underscoring TSA’s reputation as being among the worst federal entities to work for, a report by the House Oversight Committee found that TSA officials have retaliated against “disfavored” employees. Actions cited include reassigning employees to distant locations. TSA has also “obstructed various investigations which would have shed light on the agency’s culture, by withholding documents and information from Congress and the Office of Special Counsel.”
Two Airports Will Test New Perimeter Security Technology. Miami International and San Jose International have been selected by TSA to test new perimeter intrusion-detection and deterrence technologies, according to a late-September announcement from the agency. No details on the technologies were provided. The $5 million cost of each airport’s system will be paid for out of the Make America Secure and Prosperous Appropriations Act. After operational testing, findings will be reported in September 2019.
Ontario Lands New Airlines, as Air Service Expands. Ontario International Airport, 50 miles east of LAX, has gained China Airlines and JetBlue as new carriers, as the airport returns to growth after years of decline. JetBlue, which had been absent for 10 years, began non-stop service to New York’s JFK in September, and China Airlines switched one of its two daily Taipei flights from LAX to ONT back in March. ONT is managed by an outside contractor, which became Vinci Airports in April, when that company acquired the business of Airports Worldwide. The region served by ONT is projected to grow by two million people over the next three decades.
“Third Chicago Airport” Fate Affected by November Election. The decades-long attempt by the Illinois DOT and others to create a new airport near Peotone, IL—the South Suburban Airport—was an issue in the hard-fought gubernatorial race this fall. Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker said he was open to building the new airport (on land already acquired by the state DOT), while incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner opposed it as a boondoggle. Smaller parties were also split, with the Conservative Party candidate supportive and the Libertarian Party candidate opposed. Since Pritzker won, the South Suburban Airport may yet see the light of day.
U.S. Air Fares at Historic Low. Second-quarter 2018 data from the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics found the average domestic airfare to be $349, down 4.5 percent from the comparable quarter in 2017. This was the lowest number since BTS began collecting such data in 1995. The average airfare reported is an inflation-adjusted figure that includes the fare and taxes, but not ancillary fees.
New Report on Airport Emergency Operations Centers. The Airport Cooperative Research Program has issued Research Report 189, “Design Considerations for Airport EOCs.” It includes lessons learned, a concept and development planning decision tree, and checklists to help airport staff work through all the considerations involved in planning or improving an EOC. It is available on the Transportation Research Board’s website, http://www.trb.org.
“[P]erhaps the biggest potential disappointment that will come from Cuomo’s politically-driven promise to rebuild JFK is that whenever it all gets built and opened to the public, JFK will still be a hard-to-access, delay-prone airport incapable of meeting the (by then even more enormous) demands and expectations put upon it. By the time the project, as now envisaged, is completed, it will represent a relatively small increase in the number of gates at JFK and a relatively small increase in passenger handling capacity, especially in light of expected huge increases in air travel consumer demand over the next few decades Most of the new gates being built will simply replace old gates that’ll be torn down. . . . JFK has lots of available runway capacity during certain hours of the day when international flights are not vying for runway space. But during peak international flight departure and arrival times, JFK is known for very lengthy ‘conga lines’ of widebody jets lined up and waiting their turn to take off. . . . Thus, if JFK doesn’t get new runways along with its new terminals, those conga lines won’t be getting any shorter, even if airlines shift to somewhat larger planes in an effort to keep up, at least partly, with growing demand.”
—Dan Reed, “Cuomo’s Plans for JFK Are Big and Bold, But Not Enough to Solve the Airport’s Problems,” Forbes.com, Oct. 10, 2018
“The nationalist government’s latest idea is to force three state entities—the post office, the national railroads, and an investment vehicle—to jointly take control of Alitalia and run it, an exercise doomed to fail. If the government was serious about the interests of consumers (which it obviously claims to be), the best thing would be to finally allow Alitalia to fail and disappear. As [the demise of] Air Berlin shows, a promising market will always be filled quickly, often by much better alternatives. But those require space to develop without competition from a taxpayer-supported entity. Unfortunately, with the rise of nationalist and protectionist policies and governments across Europe, it is more likely EU member states will continue to fund “their” airlines, whether it makes sense or not.”
—Jens Flottau, “The Air Berlin Lesson,” Aviation Week, Aug. 20-Sept. 2, 2018