U.S. doubled international air travel in 20 years, but aid favors smaller airports

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 25, 2012 


American Airlines jets are parked at the various gates of Miami International Airport

CARL JUSTE — Miami Herald/MCT

— International air travel to and from the United States has more than doubled in the past 20 years in spite of 9/11, a deep recession and industry consolidation, according to a report released Thursday.

While the report from the Brookings Institution, a center-left research organization, found that the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas accounted for 96 percent of U.S. airline passengers who travel abroad, it also concluded that federal investment in airports doesn’t reflect where the growth is taking place.

Only a third of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program grants go to airports in the 100 largest metropolitan areas.

Most of the funds go to smaller airports with fewer passengers, and the Brookings authors argue that the 30-year-old federal program should be rebalanced in favor of those areas that contribute the most to the national economy.

“When it comes to U.S. economic health and competitiveness, recognizing just how much of the economy is concentrated in these places really matters,” said Adie Tomer, a senior research associate in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. “A program like this should be reoriented to recognize the economic primacy of these places.”

The report shows an increasing linkage between the U.S. and its trading partners in Asia and Latin America, with hubs such as Miami, Charlotte, N.C., Dallas-Fort Worth and Seattle-Tacoma serving as gateways to those regions. Miami, Dallas, Atlanta and Seattle have also made major investments in their terminal facilities to handle more international, as well as domestic, traffic.

Charlotte received a $20 million federal grant this summer for construction of a $160 million, 12,000-foot runway.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a $23.8 million for runway construction and another $20 million to acquire the property of displaced residents. A $791 million runway extension project began earlier this year.

“They want to make sure they can land the Dreamliner,” Tomer said, referring to the Boeing 787, one of the world’s largest commercial aircraft. “They’re going to do everything they can to be competitive.”

But critics of the Airport Improvement Program say that smaller airports get a disproportionate share of federal funding, and that such airports are often in the districts of influential members of Congress. A 2009 review of five years of FAA data by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the agency spent nearly $2 billion on more than 3,000 projects that had low-priority ratings.

The improvement program, funded through taxes on passenger tickets, supports runway construction and rehabilitation, land acquisition, safety improvements and noise mitigation. According to the FAA’s own guidelines, the grants cover 75 percent of the costs of eligible improvements at major or medium-size airports.

But they cover as much as 95 percent of the costs of improvements at smaller or non-commercial airports.

“The overall purpose of the program is to improve national airspace efficiency,” said Hank Price, an FAA spokesman.

Price said that 70 percent of the federal grants in the most recent fiscal year went to smaller airports, accounting for $2.36 billion of the $3.35 billion available.

But large, metropolitan-area airports have posted the biggest gains in domestic and international travel. More than 163 million passengers entered or left the U.S. in 2011, up from 75 million in 1990, a rate that outpaced growth in domestic airline travel, population and the economy.

Airports in metropolitan Miami, including Miami International and Fort Lauderdale, handled more than 18 million international passengers in 2011, a nearly 40 percent increase from 2003.

Dallas-Fort Worth saw a 23 percent increase in international passengers in the same time frame, to 4.7 million last year.

Passenger counts in Seattle-Tacoma rose to 2.6 million passengers, 21 percent more than in 2003.

Charlotte saw its international passenger traffic nearly double between 2003 and 2011, to 2.7 million passengers. Nearly 80 percent of the international traffic consists of passengers who are neither starting nor ending their trip in Charlotte.

“It’s a big country,” said Rob Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings. “Not every U.S. metro has the same kind of connection.”

Email: ctate@mcclatchdydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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