Aviation Policy News: Few U.S. Airports Being Leased, Climate Change Problem Grows, and More

Aviation Policy Newsletter

Aviation Policy News: Few U.S. Airports Being Leased, Climate Change Problem Grows, and More

Plus: A new attempt at the single European sky, questionable drone zoning proposal, and more.

In this issue:

Why So Few Airport P3 Leases, Congressional Research Service Asks

As reported here previously, in its 2018 FAA reauthorization bill, Congress revised what had been called the Airport Privatization Pilot Program. Instead of a “pilot” program limited to just 10 airports, the renamed and expanded Airport Investment Partnership Program (AIPP) is open to all U. S. commercial-service airports. The airport “sponsor” (i.e., the city, county, authority, or state that owns the airport) is free to seek qualified companies, or teams of companies and investors, to lease the airport under a long-term public-private partnership (P3).  As with the original pilot program, the leased airport would be exempted from the FAA grant assurance that requires federally aided airports to keep all airport revenue on the airport and used only for airport purposes. Hence, airport owners could liberate the asset value of their airport and use it for other public purposes. But AIPP also retains the provision of the pilot program that such value transfers can only take place if 65% of the airlines serving the airport agree.

It appears that very few people (including airport owners) are aware of this important change since I continue to read articles that assume that the old pilot program is still operational. So it is very timely that the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has produced an updated report on the subject, “Airport Privatization: Issues and Options for Congress,” March 11, 2021, report R43545, available here.

Like its earlier report on the pilot program, CRS explains the various forms that private involvement can take, ranging from simple management contracts (Albany, Westchester County) to developer financing of terminals (JFK Terminal One) to long-term lease (San Juan, PR) or sale (London Heathrow and numerous others). The report includes a helpful table explaining key provisions of AIPP, compared to what is and is not possible in the United States outside AIPP (not much). And it also includes a brief review of attempted leases under the pilot program, only two of which (Stewart in New York State and San Juan) went all the way to completion.

The most valuable section of the CRS report is its discussion about why even the new AIPP has not stimulated more long-term P3 leases, given the extensive use of this mechanism in much of Europe, Australia, some countries in Asia, and across Latin America. These include the long and cumbersome FAA review process (more than three years for San Juan, which has nevertheless been a huge success), the double-65% airline approval requirement, and the remaining detailed FAA “grant assurances” that the leased airport must still comply with.

But the most important obstacle is the major financing difference between public-serving infrastructure in the United States and the rest of the world. Everywhere else, an airport issues bonds at the same taxable interest rates whether it is owned and operated by a government or by investors. But here, in the land of tax-exempt municipal bonds, government airports borrow at tax-exempt rates while investors who lease them can access only taxable bond finance. And this applies even to the transaction under which investors acquire the airport on a long-term lease. The U.S. tax code requires that in the event of a material change of control, existing tax-exempt bonds cannot transfer to the new company. Instead, the airport sponsor (e.g., city or county) must use a potentially large chunk of its up-front lease payment to retire the airport’s outstanding bonds. And of course, the acquiring company, unless it makes an all-cash offer, must issue new taxable bonds to pay for leasing the airport.

This is likely the single most important difference in the appeal of airport P3 leases in the rest of the world versus here. So I was pleased to see CRS suggesting that one thing Congress could consider would be to, “Offer the same tax treatment to private and public infrastructure bonds.” In fact, this was one of the proposals in the 2018 White House infrastructure proposal drafted by D. J. Gribbin, which also recommended “mainstreaming” the pilot program, as Congress actually did.

Where the CRS report falls a bit short is in its treatment of the high degree of investor interest in U.S. airport P3 leases, despite the problem of disparate tax treatment. When the city of St. Louis got a slot in the former pilot program and its consulting team developed a procurement process (after having done extensive homework on best practices), everyone was amazed that the request for qualifications received submissions from 18 teams. The best-qualified 12 teams were invited to make in-person presentations in St. Louis in December 2019; 11 of them attended and their presentations were widely acknowledged to be sophisticated and detailed. A proforma agreement by the main airlines serving STL was reached, and it looked as if the process would soon proceed to the RFP stage. But it was abruptly terminated by the mayor of St. Louis just before Christmas, due to jurisdictional concerns and behind-the-scenes efforts by some business and government leaders in the wider metro area to create a regional airport authority instead.

My take-away from that experience is that even with the current tax treatment of airport revenue bonds, there is global interest in U.S. airports, as demonstrated by the responses of global airport companies, infrastructure investment funds, and public pension funds in St. Louis. When the next airport owner decides to test the water, I’d be surprised if the response were not similarly positive.

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A New Attempt at the Single European Sky

Back in 2004, the powers that be in Europe created the vision of a “single European sky,” promising seamless, less-costly, and more-efficient air traffic across the entire continent, ideally drawing on the kind of economies of scale that have led to significantly lower ATC cost per transaction in the United States than in Europe. Unfortunately, concerns about “sovereignty” have led to essentially zero structural changes since then. Thus, there are still 62 en-route centers in Europe, compared with 23 in the U.S., and 279 approach control facilities compared with 161 here. All this for a smaller geographic area, fewer airports, and one-third less controlled flight hours—but 28% more controllers.

In 2018, a group of experts (who became known as the Wise Persons Group, or WPG) was asked by the European Commission to figure out what was wrong and propose a way forward. Among its recommendations were the creation of a seamless upper airspace with common route charging, opening the airport control tower market to competition, creating a competitive market for aviation data services, and empowering Eurocontrol to function as a network manager. Note that none of these recommendations called for shutting down a single en-route center, but the idea was to create effective workarounds.

Last fall, two years after the WPG report, the commission released a plan to revive the Single European Sky, embracing significant parts of the WPG recommendations. It calls for en-route charge harmonization and a seamless upper airspace, an increased role for Eurocontrol as network manager, the possibility of a market for aviation data services, and a competitive market for tower services. It is encouraging that both Airlines for Europe (A4E) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have offered support for the new SES plan, although ANSPs appear to be divided. More concerning is strong opposition from Air Traffic Controllers European Unions Coordination (ATCEUC), which claims the plan would jeopardize air safety and data security. Underlying their opposition is fear that the plan could lead to fewer controllers.

To be sure, the commission’s new plan does not call for shutting down any en-route centers; it is more subtle than that. The plan’s provisions will make it possible for air navigation service providers to implement “virtual centers,” which Swiss ANSP Skyguide and Austria’s Austrocontrol have embraced. Tiny Switzerland (just 180 nm across and only 16,000 sq. mi.) has two centers, Geneva and Zurich, which operate with incompatible automation systems. The Swiss government has approved Skyguide’s plan to create a virtual center, in which controllers at Geneva and Zurich will form a single workforce, able to cover the entire country, using new software. Its operational target date is 2024. Austrocontrol is underway on a similar project.

Between virtual centers and a single upper airspace with a common charge, Europe has the potential of achieving a meaningful single European sky, but there will be many hurdles to overcome in getting there.

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GAO Gives TSA a Questionable Passing Grade on Airport Worker Screening

In the 2018 Transportation Security Administration Modernization Act, Congress required TSA to do a study, within one year, examining the cost and feasibility of implementing enhanced airport employee screening at a statistically significant number of TSA-regulated airports (which TSA interpreted as 333 of the 419 full-time-operating airports it serves). Two (not one) years later, the agency issued its report, and in accordance with the 2018 legislation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) carried out its review of TSA’s assessment. (GAO-21-273)

There is a history of airport workers being involved in the theft of passenger luggage, smuggling of drugs and guns, and even a suicide attempt. There is enough of this to raise serious concerns about workers’ unsupervised access to the secure portions of airport terminals and tarmac. Things got so bad at Atlanta (ATL), Miami (MIA), and Orlando (MCO) within the past decade that all three of those airports decided to spend their own money to implement and operate 100% screening (metal detectors and X-ray of carried material) of employees with access to secure areas. Despite the apparent success of these self-help measures, TSA and its stakeholder advisory group—the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC)—remain opposed to 100% employee screening as far too costly. Hence, Congress’s request for a study.

Unfortunately, GAO’s assessment of the study was more about whether TSA followed prescribed procedures in carrying out its assessment, rather than critiquing the substance of its findings about the high cost and logistical difficulties of 100% employee screening. It mildly scolded TSA for not using GAO’s own Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide, of which TSA claimed to be unaware. GAO’s only two recommendations were that next time TSA should use the GAO guide and should be sure that future feasibility assessments make use of complete information. I find it hard to believe this is what Congress expected.

Since the TSA study is not available on its website, we can only review the bits and pieces GAO discussed in its report. To estimate the cost of employee screening as defined above, TSA used four scenarios:

  • TSA-provided employee screening at the meaningful sample of 333 airports;
  • Contractor screening at the 333 airports;
  • TSA-provided employee screening at all 419 airports;
  • Contractor screening at the 419 airports.

GAO provides no details but does report TSA’s estimates of initial capital costs and annual operating costs. The capital costs ranged from $2.9 billion (presumably for the 333-airports scenarios) and $3.6 billion (presumably for all 419). The annual operating costs ranged from $2.5 billion to $3.1 billion. From these limited numbers, one has no idea what costs TSA used for the contract screening, and as GAO has reported previously, TSA has a sorry history of not making fair comparisons of the cost of in-house vs. contract screening.

When the controversy over Atlanta worker transgressions was raging in 2015 (which led to ATL implementing 100% employee screening later that year), I drew on information about the reported annual costs of screening at MIA and MCO. Those costs were $3.1 million (MIA) and $3.5 million (MCO).  Since at that time, those two large hubs handled 4.9% of total U.S. passenger enplanements, I did a calculation assuming that their combined costs of $6.6 million would be 4.9% of the costs of screening at all TSA-regulated airports. That came to just $135 million per year, a far cry from the $2.5 to $3.1 billion per year in TSA’s report to Congress. Needless to say, all three large hubs that today do 100% employee screening use contractors rather than TSA, and they pay for this out of their own operating budgets. And for the capital costs, the three self-help airports handled 10.6% of all U.S. enplanements in 2019, so extrapolating to all airports using ATL’s capital cost of $12 million yields an all-airports capital cost of just $113 million, nowhere near TSA’s $3 billion+ estimate.

How cost-effective 100% employee screening would depend a lot on what its costs would be. TSA’s Rolls-Royce cost estimates are at odds with the actual experience of three of America’s largest airports. It’s disappointing that GAO did not see fit to question this, rather than dealing only with trivia.

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Aviation’s Biggest Problem: Climate Change

While the world’s airlines struggle to win back pandemic-shocked travelers, their much larger problem will not go away when air travel returns to “normal.” Several generations of airline and aircraft and engine producer leadership will have to cope with the challenge of making their operations as carbon-neutral as possible. And the cost of doing this—still largely unknown—might well make flying less affordable and therefore reduce business-as-usual projections of passenger demand.

In writing this, I am assuming (and hoping) that governments do not impose reductions in flying, as opposed to reductions in emissions. There is a serious faction of environmental groups—stronger in Europe than the United States—that seeks to prevent airport expansion, mandate rail instead of planes for short-haul air service, and/or impose huge taxes on flying. (A pending law in France would prohibit air service on any domestic routes served by rail with travel times of 2.5 hours or less, for example.) I think such measures are misguided and should be opposed.

Last month it seemed that every day brought another report on European politicians and aviation stakeholders making pledges of carbon-neutral aviation by 2050. And not to be left out, senior transportation officials of the United States and Canada vowed to “invigorate” collaboration on decarbonizing aviation, specifically pledging to achieve net-zero aviation emissions by 2050. How are these goals supposed to be achieved?

There seem to be three primary alternatives vying for support: battery-electric aircraft propulsion, hydrogen fuel, or sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). To oversimplify, Airbus has staked out hydrogen fuel as its planned way forward while Boeing and most U.S. airlines are leaning toward SAF. Batteries are simply too heavy for the amount of energy they provide, except for small planes (and at the price of significantly reduced payload and/or range).

I remain skeptical of hydrogen, simply because at this point it costs so much to produce, even using conventional electricity. If produced using renewable electricity (wind or solar, for the most part), the cost will be far higher. Still, if it works out as fuel, as Airbus hopes, there will still be weight and range penalties in addition to significantly higher costs.

And I’ve also been skeptical of SAF, since it is one thing to produce such fuel from a small, not-too-expensive source and blend it into aviation fuel as 1 or 2% of the total. It is another thing altogether to find abundant raw material and develop a process to convert it into huge volumes of fuel to replace aviation kerosene. I have seen no estimates of the potential cost of SAF produced in the volume needed for all global airlines (96 billion gallons per year).

One interesting new SAF idea crossed my screen as I was researching this article. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a research team has developed a process to make SAF from “wet” food and animal waste. Most such waste is currently turned into methane gas, which has many current uses but will likely be banned as a climate pollutant. This research team has found a way to convert it, instead, to volatile fatty acids, which can then be upgraded into jet fuel. As opposed to food waste, animal manure exists in huge quantities and produces methane as it decays. So converting it to jet fuel would not only yield zero-carbon fuel but would also reduce methane emission from manure pits worldwide. Nobody knows what the likely cost of this version of SAF might be once massively scaled up. It may or may not prove cost-effective.

This is an example of the value of research, as opposed to governments picking winners and designing “roadmaps.” The United Kingdom’s government has announced a £15 million competition to encourage companies to develop ways to make jet fuel from household waste. Research and development to see if jet engines can be made to work reliably without being slowly destroyed by hydrogen fuel are also worthwhile. But whether it is SAF or hydrogen, carbon neutrality needs to include the full cost of the energy used to produce the hydrogen or SAF. And aircraft operators should not be shielded from the actual cost of these alternatives by government subsidies.

Fuel is the single largest operating cost of commercial aviation. As all other sectors of the economy are being decarbonized, there is no reason for aviation to be spared the full cost. It may well turn out to be far less costly to decarbonize other forms of transportation. If so, that is simply a fact. Customers should pay the true cost of whichever modes of travel they choose, which is another reason taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize high-speed rail.

One other thought. As I discussed at some length in Issue No. 171, December 2019 (“A Smarter Way Forward on Airline CO2 Emissions”), there is a respectable case for people being able to pay to offset some or all of the emissions involved in air travel. Legitimate, large-scale programs for tree planting and forest preservation can be very cost-effective alternatives to cases where the cost of zero-carbon solutions is very high (which may be the case for international air travel). Wise government policy, which seeks the greatest climate-improvement per dollar spent, will embrace and facilitate large-scale carbon offsetting, especially for industries where getting to zero carbon directly is very costly or impossible.

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Sen. Mike Lee Reintroduces Flawed Drone Integration and Zoning Act
By Marc Scribner

On March 4, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) reintroduced the Drone Integration and Zoning Act (DIZA) for the 117th Congress. Sen. Lee had originally introduced the bill in 2019 for the 116th Congress, where it garnered no cosponsors and resulted in no hearings. DIZA would authorize states, counties, municipalities, and tribal governments to regulate airspace up to 200 feet above ground level. Sen. Lee argues “FAA cannot feasibly or efficiently oversee millions of drones” and DIZA would “unleash drone innovation.” Unfortunately, DIZA would do nothing to address the root causes of FAA’s well-known inefficiencies and would almost certainly greatly increase regulatory costs and threaten drone innovation.

Sen. Lee’s efforts on “drone federalism” began when he coauthored the Drone Federalism Act with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in 2017. The pairing of Sen. Lee, who claims to be a supporter of drone innovation, with Sen. Feinstein, perhaps the most vocally anti-drone member of Congress, was not lost on drone stakeholders. Commercial and hobbyist drone advocates engaged in a lobbying blitz to successfully stop the Lee and Feinstein legislation from moving forward.

Sen. Lee’s latest legislative effort is similar to his past bill and has been similarly opposed by commercial and hobbyist drone stakeholders. DIZA would change the statutory definition of “navigable airspace” to exclude unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operating below 200 feet above ground level (AGL). It orders FAA to conduct a rulemaking to further define “navigable airspace” in “consult[ation] with appropriate State, local, or Tribal officials.” FAA is further ordered to designate airspace between 200 and 400 feet AGL for use by UAS. This rulemaking is to be completed within one year of enactment of DIZA, which FAA observers should recognize as an implausible deadline for the agency to meet.

Rather than “unleashing drone innovation,” the bill would potentially unleash tens of thousands of different state and local UAS operating requirements. DIZA’s definition of “reasonable restrictions” on UAS operations that can be enforced by state, county, municipal, and tribal governments include airspace speed limits, prohibitions “in the vicinity of schools, parks, roadways, bridges, moving locations, or other public or private property,” time of day restrictions, and “[o]ther prohibitions that protect public safety, personal privacy, or property rights.”

The only state and local actions the bill considers “unreasonable” are “complete and total bans” on UAS operations and “a combination of prohibitions” that make it “nearly impossible” for UAS to enter navigable airspace. In practice, this would allow state and local governments to ban the majority of UAS operations presently legal under federal law. Hundreds of bills have been introduced at the state and local level to prohibit federally permissible UAS operations, so the notion that DIZA would somehow “unleash drone innovation” is refuted by the very state actors it would empower.

The only element of the bill that could arguably be said to be pro-drone innovation concerns UAS parcel delivery. DIZA would eliminate FAA’s authority over small UAS parcel delivery operations if the UAS carrying the package between origin and destination does not cross state lines. This section of DIZA also instructs FAA to keep regulatory costs minimal and to ensure application costs “substantially outweigh the compliance costs for an applicant.” But reading this section with the rest of the bill, one might naturally ask, what good is reduced FAA authority over a subset of future UAS operations when state and local governments are likely to prohibit UAS operations more generally?

Although DIZA is misguided, UAS does raise legitimate local concerns. For instance, privacy violations are state matters and it is challenging for local authorities to enforce against violators. New FAA requirements on UAS remote identification should allow for improved enforcement, but the remote ID rule may require further refinement. The December 2020 issue of this newsletter (“Are Airspace Property Rights the Way Forward for Drones?”) discussed a working paper by the Mercatus Center’s Brent Skorup that convincingly argued that FAA’s airspace supremacy is not as extensive as the agency often claims, particularly at the very low altitudes contemplated in DIZA. This suggests there may be a role for Congress in clarifying where property owners’ interests in the immediate airspace above their land end and FAA’s uniform authority begins.

Despite Sen. Lee’s perennial efforts, there appears to be little interest among his colleagues in creating the multilayered regulatory patchwork proposed in his bill. In the words of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents drone hobbyists, “we remain cautiously optimistic that the Drone Integration and Zoning Act will lack the Congressional support needed to pass.” A better approach for Sen. Lee if he wishes to truly “unleash drone innovation” would be to identify real policy barriers to UAS operations and propose meaningful statutory changes in the 2023 FAA reauthorization that can help speed full UAS integration into the national airspace system.

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News Notes

Spirit Adds LGA-LAX Nonstop
Spirit Airlines announced three new routes from LaGuardia Airport: Nashville, San Juan, and Los Angeles. The last of these raised eyebrows, due to the long-standing “perimeter rule” that restricts flights to and from LGA to 1,500 miles, with the single exception of Denver. But it turns out that the rule does not apply to low-traffic Saturdays, so Spirit’s new roundtrip service will be Saturdays-only.

New Support for Supersonic Aircraft Developers
The two leading start-up companies developing supersonic aircraft received boosts this month. Boom Supersonic received a “strategic investment” from the venture capital branch of American Express, to assist with the development of its planned 88-seat Mach 2 Overture airliner. And Boeing-backed supersonic business jet company Aerion received an order for 20 of its Mach 1.4 AS2 business jets from NetJets. Aerion says production of the AS2 will begin in 2023 in Melbourne, Florida.

FAA Picks Five Airports for Counter-Drone Tests
In a March 2 news release, FAA announced that the airports of Atlantic City, Syracuse, Huntsville, Seattle-Tacoma plus Rickenbacker International in Columbus, Ohio will be sites for its Airport UAS Detection and Mitigation Research Program. Aviation Daily (March 5) reports that various technologies will be tested to “detect, track, and possibly disable” small drones that present a hazard to airport operations. In addition to these FAA tests (late 2021 through 2023), TSA has a drone-detection project at Miami International.

Paris Airport Drops Fourth Terminal Plan
Last month, Groupe ADP, owner of both Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, announced that at the request of the French government, it will scrap its current plan for a Terminal 4, but will “submit a new project for the evolution of the Paris Charles de Gaulle platform.” ADP is 50.6% owned by the French government, and the previous plan for its privatization was put on hold in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Terminal 4 plan had an estimated cost of €7-9 billion.

New UK Study on Between-Airports eVTOL Service
A consortium led by EmbraerX spinoff Eve will develop a concept of operation for eVTOL air taxi service for urban and regional traffic in UK airspace. Members include Heathrow Airport, London City Airport, NATS (the UK ANSP), Skyports, Atech, and eVTOL developers Volocopter and Vertical Airspace. An initial simulation will include a route between London City and Heathrow, currently served by helicopters as well as surface vehicles.

Remote Towers in Northern Europe
Finland looks to be the next European country to implement remote tower service for airports. ANSP Fintraffic ANS and airport operator Finavia have begun planning a project that will create remote tower centers able to provide tower services at some or all of Finavia’s 21 airports. The idea is to both improve the service level at the airports in question and reduce the cost of providing tower service in the recovery from the pandemic. In Scotland, however, controllers are still resisting the shift to remote tower service by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. (HIAL). Its planned remote tower center at Inverness would replace conventional towers at five of HIAL’s 11 airports—but most controllers there say they will not relocate and are lobbying the government to veto the plan.

FedEx Studying Single-Pilot Operations
Aviation journalist Jon Ostrower reported on his The Air Current blog (Feb. 18, 2021) that FedEx Express and Sikorsky have been quietly testing single-pilot flights for cargo airliners. Test flights are occurring out of the Waterbury, CT airport using a FedEx-owned ATR 42 twin-turboprop aircraft. Ostrower notes that this “will likely intensify both the technology development amid a steady transformation in the economics of e-commerce and a heated public debate about single-pilot operations.”

Archer Announces Two Startup Locations
The eVTOL startup company Archer has made two announcements of where it plans to launch its Urban Air Mobility network. On Feb. 26 it “committed to launch its first air-taxi network in Los Angeles by 2024.” LAX is a hub for United, which has committed to order up to 200 Archer eVTOLs. But on March 11 the company announced that Miami International will be the launch market for its UAM network. Aviation Daily quoted Archer’s Brett Adcock as saying Miami is a polycentric metropolis with more than 40 helipads, making it a good place to begin service with its eVTOL with a range of 60 miles.

FAA Finds New Use for Space-Based ADS-B Data
Using its one-year data-access agreement with space-based ADS-B provider Aireon, FAA has launched a 737 MAX tracking project. Using each MAX’s unique ICAO code, FAA can monitor a number of flight performance measures, such as climb or descent rates and collision-alert warnings. The data are provided via AireonSTREAM, which provides real-time data on subsets of ADS-B-equipped aircraft. Data can be monitored in real-time as well as via daily reports.

Frequentis and Avinor Win Award for ATM/UTM Integration
Air Traffic Management magazine selected Norwegian ANSP Avinor and technology provider Frequentis for one of its 2020 awards. The project provides 17 Avinor control towers with an integrated system for managing UAS vehicles in the vicinity of the airports. As of last month, the system was operational at six of Avinor’s towers. The system will be rolled out nationwide.

Amazon Buys Part of Air Transport Services Group
Back in 2016, Amazon began to lease air freighters from Air Transport Services Group (ATSG), as it began developing its own air freight network. The system has expanded since then, as Amazon Air, with more than 80 Boeing 767Fs in operation by the end of 2020. The original deal gave Amazon warrants to invest in ATSG, which it exercised earlier this month to acquire a 9.5% stake in the company. A detailed report on the role and growth of Amazon Air was released by the Chaddick Institute at DePaul University in February. Go here.

FAA Expands Use of PFC Revenue for Airport Transit
In the waning days of the Trump administration, FAA announced a change in policy regarding projects eligible for funding or financing based on revenues from passenger facility charges (PFCs). The previous policy allowed PFCs to be used for transit projects only if they exclusively served the airport in question. Thus, a new branch of a subway line terminating at an airport could qualify but adding a station on an existing line could not. The new rule permits funding based on the share of passengers on the line using it to get to or from the airport. Supporters of rail access to LaGuardia Airport are hoping this will help with plans for such service there.

JFK Lease Extended to 2060
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has negotiated an agreement with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that extends the latter’s lease on Kennedy International from 2050 to a new end-date of 2060. The Port Authority agreed to implement a community benefits package to accompany the multi-billion-dollar terminal modernization projects at JFK and also agreed that those projects will employ union-friendly Project Labor Agreements.

First U.S. Military Remote Tower in Operational Testing
The remote tower system developed by Frequentis began operational testing at Homestead Air Reserve Base south of Miami late last year. The testing will continue through mid-2021. The remote tower will actively control air traffic at the base, with the conventional tower serving as a backup. Capable of controlling traffic at several locations, the remote tower is equipped with the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) like FAA towers. The project is under the supervision of the Naval Information Warfare Center Atlantic, with the support of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

Space-Based ADS-B for North Sea Helicopter Surveillance
Avinor ANS and Aireon last month announced a contract under which Avinor’s Bodo Oceanic Flight Information Region will use Aireon’s space-based ADS-B data to monitor low-flying helicopters in this oceanic airspace. All helicopters in this airspace, including those for search-and-rescue and those serving offshore oil platforms, are required to have ADS-B/Out, making them visible to the Aireon satellites. The contract may subsequently be expanded to cover aircraft flying at higher altitudes in this FIR.

New Report on Airport Parking Challenges
The Airport Cooperative Research Program has released a new report, “Rethinking Airport Parking Facilities to Protect and Enhance Non-Aeronautical Revenue.” It is ACRP Report. No. 225 and is available from the Transportation Research Board website. Go here.

Cadillac One-Person eVTOL?
Believe it or not, I have seen a two-paragraph description and photo of a planned “single-seat autonomous eVTOL” from General Motors’ Cadillac division, as GM tries to keep pace with every new trend. This does not seem to be a spoof. It’s on page 40 of Aviation Week’s Jan. 25-Feb. 7 issue. To paraphrase our new president, “C’mon, man.”

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Quotable Quotes

“There are two sides of the fence [on advanced air mobility], and you’re either on one side or the other. One side of the fence is that this is disruptive technology, and this will just change the whole landscape of how people travel in cities and between regional points. . . . There are others that are a little bit curious to see how this thing works. We’ve had helicopter service for years, which isn’t all that different. There are some concerns over noise—these things are overgrown drones. . . . Even though [billions] seem like a big number to us, it’s just pocket change to [investors]. They hope there is a return. Right now there are as many arguments why it’s going to succeed and won’t succeed.”
—Brian Foley, quoted in Michael Bruno, “Dollars and Sense: Will UAM Go the Way of VLJs and Other Revolutions?” Aviation Week, Feb. 22-March 7, 2021

“Even without the extra support, airlines already had plenty of cash on hand to survive an extended recovery. Even at current levels of cash burn—roughly $150 million per day, collectively, in the 2021 first quarter—most have enough liquidity to survive for years. Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson estimated that American Airlines and JetBlue Airways—the two most vulnerable airlines from a cash burn and liquidity perspective—still have enough cash on hand to survive another five quarters at Q1 demand levels . . . . Should airlines and their labor unions return with outstretched hands come September, lawmakers would be wise to send them packing. The industry badly needs to rationalize supply with demand, and those moves cannot happen as long as the government continues to meddle in decisions related to headcounts and networks.”
—Ben Goldstein, “U.S. Airlines Don’t Need Any More Money from Congress,” Aviation Daily, March 12, 2021

“Despite the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Volpe GPS Vulnerability Study, FAA continues to maintain a GNSS-centric PNT mentality. While their 2016 Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) Strategy was to retain resilient ground-based alternatives, the vast majority of Distance Measuring Equipment (DME), VHF Omni-directional Ranges (VORs), and Tactical Navigation (TACAN) operating in the NAS (National Airspace System) were designed in the ‘70s and installed in the ‘80s. Although the concept of “GPS-sole means” does not officially exist, FAA has not yet taken significant steps to recapitalize these 30-40-year-old systems, although efforts to expand procedures reliant on GNSS services continue unabated. By comparison, FAA installed navaids at over 850 sites in the 1980s and added over 100 additional locations in the 1990s. It is interesting that their current DME-VOR-TACAN (DVT) plan spans 42 years—over twice the normal life cycle of these equipments—and does not address the hundreds of aging Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) or Approach Lighting Systems (ALS). It is also interesting that FAA’s proposed DVT strategy is to issue Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ) contracts, with TACAN antenna replacement being the first step. This will only serve to proliferate and expand the logistics challenges of maintaining numerous configurations by an aging and retiring workforce, preclude economic ordering quantities, and take decades to replace thousands of aging navaids. As reports of GNSS interference with aviation continue to mount worldwide, it would seem prudent for FAA to prioritize the replacement of these resilient systems to ensure, as the FAA mission states, ‘the safest, most-efficient aviation system in the world,’ and set an example for ANSPs worldwide.”
—Aviation Sector Professional, email to Robert Poole, March 15, 2021

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