My latest trip to the annual conference of the American Association of Airport Executives was pretty much the worst out of all my 18 years at ENR. Not, mind you, because of the quality of the conference—it is always a valuable, high-quality experience with informative sessions and fun events. Airport people are generally pretty awesome.

It wasn’t Minneapolis-St. Paul airport’s fault that I emerged from my original flight, then walked back and forth across the terminal like a clueless drunk trying to figure out which way to get to my connecting flight to San Antonio.

“I’m in F! Where’s G? That sign says A, B, C, D and G…” Walk walk walk….”Wait, maybe I’m hallucinating, surely G is in the other direction, why would it come before F?” Walk walk walk…(sweating)…”Nope. It was in the original direction $(%*&!!” And plop down at the gate where there are dining tables with firmly locked-down I-Pads everywhere. 

No, that sinking feeling in my gut didn’t come from hearing about the uncertainties faced by non-hub airports as airlines increasingly merge and as short-haul direct flights decrease. It apparently came from that chicken tortilla soup I ate at the conference hotel when I dined with Allan Shapiro of Ross & Baruzzini and a small troop of Turner Construction folks led by the indomitable Jayne O’Donnell. She’s one of those aviation construction veterans who increase my knowledge of what’s going on by tenfold within 10 minutes of listening to her.

Nobody else got sick, but nobody else had chicken tortilla soup. The next day, thoroughly emptied in body and spirit, I staggered to the opening sessions. As fate would have it, former San Antonio mayor and former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros was speaking while at any moment San Antonio mayor Julian Cruz was expected to be nominated for HUD Secretary. (And the San Antonio Spurs were in the playoffs). 

But this being an airport crowd, audiences were really there to hear Gary Kelly, the leader of Southwest Airlines (which, I discovered, was founded the year I was born. Unlike I, however, it has enjoyed ridiculous amounts of success).  Short-haul flights are down, he said. Southwest is going international. Modernization of the air traffic control system is a top priority. 

But airport executives wanted to know about one of their top priorities – an increase in the Passenger Facility Charge, which has been sitting interminably on the tarmac at $4.50. I would have bet $4.50 and a stomach pump that inevitably, as they always have of every airline executive who periodically braves the airport world at these conferences, someone would ask him about this. And I would have won.

“I am perplexed,” said the audience member, “at AIA’s resistance to a modest increase in the PFC. Is there any way we can get past that?”

Kelly was honest. “There is a paranoia about cost.” The inevitable expressions regarding ongoing discussion were made, the session ended, and I considered my innards. 

The actual reporting on the conference is in the next issue of ENR. And here’s a healthy tip of the day: A charcoal pill works wonders for food poisoning. Thank you always to Alan, the kind cabbie who gave me one as I regretfully but shakily left AAAE’s fabulous soiree at La Villita. I never got to have my traditional dance with Phil Agee, the senior business development manager at URS. Next time, Phil.