With sequestration and a government shutdown looming last month, U.S. airport officials kept their focus on their major goals: increasing passenger facility charges (PFCs) for airport construction and garnering public support for Next Generation satellite-based technology for air traffic control.

At their annual meeting, held late last month in San Jose, Calif., members of Airports Council International-North America fretted over the possibility that the shutdown might usher in a repeat dip into the Airport Improvement Program, which is meant to fund improvements at small airports. This spring, $253 million came out of AIP to roll back air-traffic-control furloughs.

Noting that airports need at least $71.3 billion over the next five years for "essential" projects, ACI-NA Chairman David Edwards Jr. told reporters, "AIP should not be raided to avoid more Federal Aviation Administration furloughs, and PFCs should go to $8.50." PFCs are currently at $4.50.

"Along with the long-standing funding concerns, industry officials also discussed how to deal with extreme weather events. With photos showing LaGuardia airport's runway inundated by Superstorm Sandy, David Carlson, director of sustainable development for Parsons Corp., said that one consideration in protecting infrastructure is, "in 50 years, will you even still be using [a certain] asset?" He added, "Not all assets are at the same risk from the same climate effects."

Jim Crites, executive vice president of operations for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, noted that the threat of sequestration "might have a silver lining" in that "it galvanized the entire industry to rally around NextGen." While committees are focusing on technical aspects of implementing NextGen, "we don't talk much about the economic and environmental benefits" to stakeholders, he said.

The improved air-traffic flows from NextGen would allow San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to "avoid having to build a $6-billion new runway," said John Bergener, airport planning manager for SFO's commission. With parallel runways spaced only 750 ft apart and the Bay Area's famous morning fog, his airport is one of the most notorious for flight delays, he said.

NextGen is not the only airport technology on the horizon. A pilot program already under way at Chicago's O'Hare airport employs automated passport control in which passengers can use self-serve kiosks to speed entry, resulting in as much as a 33% decrease in wait times.

Changes in future airport designs may arise from not only automated improvements to flight processes and response to extreme weather but also due to increasing emphasis on the airport as a destination. Stuart Williams, program manager for south-terminal redevelopment at Denver International Airport, said the program will include a "re-imagined" waiting area, a transit center and a 519-room hotel complex with conference rooms, restaurants, areas for public events and even a security checkpoint. The $544-million project is scheduled to open in 2016—on the 20th anniversary of DIA opening, he said.