As an increasingly budget-conscious Congress debates multi-year aviation legislation, airport construction funding may be frozen or cut back. That outcome would come as a blow to U.S. airports, which need an estimated $80.1 billion in capital projects over the next five years to upgrade and expand runways, terminals and other infrastructure, according to a new survey of airport officials who say current funds fall far short of those needs.

Airports Report $80 Billion in Capital Needs

The survey, released by the Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) on Feb. 23, shows that the potential market is substantial and that nearly half of the $80 billion would be for projects at large airport hubs. Greg Principato, ACI-NA president, says that for airport users and managers, “These projects are considered essential ... to meet forecasted passenger and cargo growth.”

The new estimate is down 15% from the $94.3 billion projected two years ago. Principato says airports have delayed or canceled “billions of dollars in projects” because of the recession and a decline in the number of flights.

Still, the amount of airport planning, design and construction work now on the street looks “pretty positive,” says Roddy Boggus, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president and global aviation market leader. “We know that there’s been about a five-year pent-up demand,” he says. “Things seem to be trying to come back relatively strong, considering the economic situation we’ve been in.”

The survey says airports have financing lined up for much of the work. Large hubs have funds secured or expected for 70% of their projects, medium hubs have money committed for 60% of their projects and small hubs have funds committed for 75% of their projects.

But the Capitol Hill outlook for increased multiyear aviation funding is not bright.The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Feb. 16 cleared a four-year bill that would cut Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants to an average of about $3 billion a year, from $3.5 billion in 2010. It also would bar hiking the $4.50 cap on airport passenger facility charges (PFCs), another key construction funding source.

The Senate on Feb. 17 approved a more generous two-year bill. It averages about $4 billion a year for AIP, but would freeze the PFC cap at $4.50, except at six airports, which would have no limit.