In terms of NextGen air-traffic-control technology, U.S. airports are ready for takeoff, but the industry is still waiting on the tarmac for progress on a key goal: raising the per-ticket passenger facility charge (PFC) to $8.50 from $4.50, to fund infrastructure projects.

Noting that, in the past five years, $5 billion has been invested in NextGen technologies nationwide, Edward Bolton Jr., the Federal Aviation Administration's NextGen assistant administrator, said, "This is a make or break time in the history of the program. The bottom line is … we are at a crossroad."

At the Airports Council International-North America annual conference this month in Atlanta, Bolton said modernization efforts are at the midway point, with the last piece—installation of an airborne collision-avoidance system—due by 2020. "In 2015, from an infrastructure perspective, we will see significant changes," he added.

Mario Diaz, the Houston aviation chief who moderated the panel, noted that, in July at his airports, 62 flight operations were altered overnight to optimize descent patterns, which could save them 3 million gallons of fuel a year.

The challenge to completing NextGen, observed Steve Dickson, senior vice president of flight operations for Delta Air Lines, is "keeping the public attention on a multiyear program for funding."

But when it comes to the PFC issue, the airlines are still at odds with airport infrastructure managers. "The airlines have been making the case that the PFC is a tax," said Mark Reis, ACI-NA chair. To convince Congress otherwise, ACI-NA is trying to build a coalition that extends beyond the aviation industry to include construction contractors, retailers and security providers, he added.

ACI-NA hopes to make the message clear to new members of Congress, especially tax-hike-shy GOPers. "Our message has to be more tailored than it was in the past," said ACI-NA President and CEO Kevin Burke. Part of that message is to emphasize the industry's 7% contribution to the national GDP, he said.