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Perspective: Aviation Infrastructure Opportunities in 2021 and Beyond

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Sarah Stumpo - Director (Aviation)

2020 was an extremely difficult year for the aviation sector as North American airports witnessed declines of 59.0% and 73.8% in domestic and international travel respectively, and overall passenger traffic declines of 61.3% from pre-pandemic levels.

These declines, coupled with the pandemic’s economic recession, have again forced airports to delay big-ticket projects in favor of maintaining current infrastructure to acceptable levels. As American air travel continues to recover, travelers are increasingly returning the skies by means of underfunded, overstressed, and crumbling airports.

While this outlook may seem bleak given that air travel reportedly will not return to normal levels until 2023, there is good news on the horizon[1]. This past Friday (November 5, 2021), the United States House of Representatives passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021, sending the legislation to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law. This new legislation funds the greatest single investment in the United States’ infrastructure in history, with $550 billion in new spending, including a critical $25 billion investment in funding for our nation’s airports systems[2]

The funding stream for air travel breaks down into three buckets, two of which will directly benefit the traveling public. The first bucket outlays funds for FAA air traffic control (ATC) facility improvements and aims to build and maintain new ATC facilities across the US. The second bucket funds the existing Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and the third creates a new “Groundside” competitive grant program for airports. Each bucket contains funds to be paid over 5 years, with $5 billion going to the FAA, $15 billion outlined for the AIP and $5 billion for the new “Groundside” program. 

At Anser, we believe travelers across the aviation spectrum will feel the effects of funding the AIP and Groundside programs quickly. The bucket of AIP funding outlays $3 billion per year through 2026, with no more than $2.4 billion for “primary” airports, no more than $500 million for general aviation and commercial service airports, and $20 million for the contract tower programs’ competitive awards. The innovative “Groundside” grant program would provide $1 billion annually for competitive awards for terminal development projects, with a special focus on replacing aging infrastructure, increasing capacity and passenger access, achieving ADA compliance, improving airport access for historically disadvantaged populations, achieving LEED accreditation, improving airfield safety through terminal relocation, and more[3]. Funding limits are further broken down with no more than 55 percent of funds for large hubs, 15 percent for medium hubs; 20 percent for small hubs; and 10 percent for nonprimary airports annually. This means that airports both large and small will be guaranteed a place at the table to compete for funding for projects they desperately need[4]

This historic investment, while not a magic bullet, is a fantastic start to help airports who have been impacted in the past two years address critical deferred maintenance, improve passenger and employee safety, and modernize their facilities.

Airports, small and large, should move quickly to prepare “shovel ready” projects to apply for the various funding streams. It is our opinion that airports who focus on improving passenger safety (public facing or not) will see greater success in the application for these grant funding opportunities. The “Groundside” grant program is particularly interesting as it provides funding for increasing accessibility to airports, which does not involve parking. In the last 10 years, access via Transportation Network Companies and app-based rides have dominated the ground transportation networks at airport access points at the consequence of large operational challenges. With the introduction of the “Groundside” grant program, airports should focus their attention to their city’s master plan for light rail or other multimodal connection options. This is an excellent opportunity to divert traffic from Transportation Network Companies to public transportation methods which can be regulated with increase ease and is a standardized form of airport access.

With the FAA currently predicting an increase from 700 million passengers to close to 1 billion in the next 10-15 years, it is crucial that airports are prepared and ready to accept these passengers and support the related infrastructure. This historic investment, while not a magic bullet, is a fantastic start to help airports who have been impacted in the past two years address critical deferred maintenance, improve passenger and employee safety, and modernize their facilities. 

[1] Turak, N. (2020, May 14). Air Travel won’t return to pre-crisis levels until 2023, IATA chief warns. Retrieved November 9, 2021, from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/14/coronavirus-air-travel-wont-return-to-pre-crisis-levels-until-2023-iata-chief-warns.html.

[2] Cochrane, E. (2021, August 10). Senate passes $1 trillion infrastructure bill, handing Biden a bipartisan win. The New York Times. Retrieved November 9, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/10/us/politics/infrastructure-bill-passes.html.

[3] American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021, August 3). Memorandum – asce.org. www.asce.org. Retrieved November 9, 2021, from https://www.asce.org/-/media/asce-images-and-files/advocacy/documents/2021-asce-memo-senate-bipartisan-infrastructure-deal.pdf.

[4] Nationals Association of Counties. (2021, November 3). Legislative Analysis for counties: The Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act. NACo. Retrieved November 9, 2021, from https://www.naco.org/resources/legislative-analysis-counties-infrastructure-investment-jobs-act.

About Contributor: Sarah Stumpo

Sarah Stumpo is a Director with experience in planning, design, and construction, as well as providing organizational assessments and advisory services to airports nationwide. She is a licensed Architect with over six years of experience in all phases of design, construction documentation and construction administration, from the proposal stage through construction and project closeout. 

Previously, working as an Architect for a national architecture and engineering firm, she was responsible for executing and delivering successful projects involving the design of terminals, renovations, airport/airline support spaces and associated facilities. Prior to her time working as a designer, she worked in the Planning and Development Division at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where she was responsible for assisting with the management of vertical projects within the capital program.