A committee headed by Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt has met to discuss air travel. Blunt was elected to a 2nd term in November, and chairs two subcommittees in the Senate.
Thursday, he headed the Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, which held a hearing titled “FAA Reauthorization: Perspectives on Improving Airport Infrastructure and Aviation Manufacturing”.
Much of the meeting focused on how to update outdated infrastructure at U.S. airports, which is lagging behind other parts of the world. While opening the hearing, Blunt stressed the need for upgrades after a severely critical report by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“The grade that the civil engineers gave to the airport infrastructure was a grade of “D”, which is mostly below standard” said Blunt. “And that’s, of course, not where anybody wants to be.”
The report said airports are struggling to keep up with investment needs.
Blunt noted the federal government supports airports through three funding mechanisms – Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants, authorized passenger facility charge (PFC’s) and tax exempt bonds issued by state and local authorities for airport improvements.
St. Louis Lambert International Airport Executive Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge testified at the hearing. She’s run the facility since 2010, having spent all of the previous 27 years of her career working for airlines.
Hamm-Niebruegge said funding for infrastructure improvements could be generated by loosening restrictions on PFC’s. “Congress can dramatically improve our resource deficit and promote self-sufficiency of U.S. airports with no federal investment by increasing, or outright eliminating the PFC cap.”
Those charges are currently limited to $4.50 for every passenger who boards a commercial airliner. Airports use the fees to pay for FAA-approved projects such as boosting capacity and security, and increasing air carrier competition.
Hamm-Niebruegge also expressed concern over federal proposals to limit or remove the tax exemption of municipal bonds.
“Considering the infrastructure needs airports and cities alike are facing, the last thing we need is the loss of tax free municipal bonds, which in many cases, are the funding mechanism of last resort.”
Lawmakers in Washington plan to take up infrastructure and the tax code, which President Trump has said are major priorities for his administration.
Southwest Airlines Airport Affairs Vice President Bob Montgomery also testified about infrastructure funding.
He said Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants should be expanded, but strongly opposed hiking the passenger facility charge (PFC’s) favored by Hamm-Niebruegge. “We see simply no good justification to raise our customers’ tax and fee burden” said Montgomery.
St. Louis Mayor was in Washington earlier this week asking for federal approval to look at placing Lambert International under private management. Doing so would free up airport revenues to be used for purposes beyond the airport itself.
During the hearing Hamm-Niebruegge referred to Lambert International as a medium hub airport, a rung below the ranking of large hub.