Passenger and general aviation airports across the United States are pushing ahead with big expansion plans as air traffic continues to rebound. But airport owners and their consultants face a daunting list of challenges including: the uncertain fate of some airlines, the quest for greenfield space and anticipated new cargo security guidelines from the Transportation Security Administration.

Smaller and general aviation airports face a specific potential funding crisis next year. The presidential budget to chop Airport Improvement Program grants by 24%, to $2.8 billion. General aviation (GA) airports would lose their yearly entitlements of $150,000. "We want our billion dollars back," Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, told attendees at the annual conference of the American Association of Airport Executives, held April 23-26 in San Diego.

These cuts would adversely affect GA-related airport construction. For example, Halifax-Northampton Airport is a brand new GA airport being built for $1.7 million in Virginia, mostly with federal grants. Federal Aviation Administration forecasts that general aviation hours flown will increase from 28.3 million in 2005 to 41.1 million in 2017.

Boyer dismissed the idea of imposing user fees at GA airports to make up for federal cuts. "It's the airline operating costs, not GA costs, that are affecting the FAA budget," he said.

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  • Airline operating costs -- and potential bankruptcies -- are causing major challenges for managers of airports with hub carriers. Douglas Jessop, a bankruptcy lawyer, warned that with jet fuel at $70/barrel, "right now, no airline can survive these prices. Airline bankruptcies are continual and relentless." Therefore, airport managers must as landlords insist that airlines pay their debts and fulfill their lease contract requirements. Some may ask for lease extensions or exceptions, but "you don't have to change the lease," he advised airport managers.

    Taking control of facilities that had been airline property gives airport officials greater leeway to maximize existing space. As one example, Philadelphia Airport bought jetbridges and other facilities from U.S. Airways, which faced bankruptcy before merging with America West, said Charles Isdell, director of aviation for the airport, which is also taking over ramping and deicing operations.

    But airlines balk at the idea of common-use facilities owned and controlled by the airport. "I don't blame [airport owners], but we want to run our own business," said Bob Montgomery, properties vice president for Southwest Airlines. With common-use facilities, if a competitor goes bankrupt and stops paying to use them, "should we also quit paying?"

    Despite the uncertain fate of some carriers, passenger traffic is spurring on big airport expansionsoften with alternative methods of funding and project delivery. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority's $4-billion capital program is focused on Dulles Airport, where site work for a fourth runway is gearing up. The MWAA also plans a people mover system that will run 15 miles underneath the airfield, said Margaret McKeough, MWAA executive vice president. In other non-aviation ventures, the MWAA will operate a toll road and run a transit project.

    Atlanta Airport's new fifth runway, slated to open May 15, will save $250 million a year in delay-related costs, said Ben DeCosta, general manager. A $500-million consolidated car rental facility, under a CM-at-risk contract, is also getting under way. But redesign of an international terminal will add $200 million to the budget (ENR 8/22/05, p.10). "There's a lesson learned here," said DeCosta. "If you finish 100% design, then bring the builders in, you're bound to get into trouble. You need the builders at the table during schematic design."

    San Diego airport officials are trying to bring the military to its discussion table. They are completing final analysis of nine potential sites for a new greenfield airport. Three of the sites are on military bases. At 661 confined acres, the existing airport cannot handle the forecasted increase to 32 million annual passengers by 2030, said Angela Shafer-Payne, vice president of strategic planning.

    One preferred site is required by law to be on the November ballot. To date the military has refused to discuss the possibility of joint-use facilities, but "military representatives say that at the end of the day it will follow the civilian lead," said Shafer-Payne.

    Civilian airports must follow the federal government's lead and wait for TSA to come out with its Federal Register final rule regarding cargo security requirements. It will include requirements for patrols, worker identification, shipping clearances and inspection.

    But airport owners are still grumbling about TSA and existing passenger screening challenges. Steve Wareham, airport director for the Metropolitan Airports Commission in Minneapolis-St. Paul, noted that Canadian luggage must be rescreened when the passengers make connecting flightseven though nobody has touched the bags in the interim. "Why? TSA was never really responsive to us," he said.

    "Too many [TSA] decisions are made in a vacuum by people knowing nothing about airports," said Thella Bowens, president of San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. "Airports have to take a stand about TSA mandates, and make TSA pay for them."