National Airspace System:

Regional Airport Planning Could Help Address Congestion If Plans Were Integrated with FAA and Airport Decision Making

GAO-10-120: Published: Dec 23, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 26, 2010.

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that the national airspace system will become increasingly congested over time, imposing costs of delay on passengers and regions. While transforming the current air-traffic control system to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) may provide additional en route capacity, many airports will still face constraints at their runways and terminals. In light of these forecasts, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to evaluate regional airport planning in metropolitan regions with congested airports. GAO (1) identified which airports are currently or will be significantly congested and the potential benefits of regional airport planning, (2) assessed how regions with congested airports use regional airport planning in decision making, and (3) identified factors that hinder or aid in the development and implementation of regional airport plans. GAO reviewed studies; interviewed FAA, airport, and other aviation and transportation officials; and conducted case studies in selected regions.

A number of airports are or will be significantly capacity constrained and thus congested within the next 16 years. However, many of them face environmental and other obstacles to developing additional airport capacity. In 2007, FAA identified 14 airports (in 10 metropolitan regions) that will be significantly capacity constrained by 2025, even assuming all currently planned improvements occur (see figure). Planned improvements include airport construction projects and implementation of NextGen technologies. Without these improvements, FAA predicts that 27 airports will be congested. According to the FAA assessment and other studies, regional airport planning may identify additional solutions, such as the increased use of alternate airports or other modes of travel, to help relieve airport congestion. From 1999 through 2008, 9 of the 10 metropolitan regions with airports forecast to be significantly capacity constrained by 2025 have received a total of $20 million in FAA funding for regional airport planning. Of those regions, 6 have developed or will develop regional airport system plans (RASP), which we found largely followed FAA's guidance for airport system planning. The remaining 4 regions have engaged in less comprehensive planning. FAA does not formally review RASPs, and they have been used selectively by FAA and airports in decision making for the planning and funding of individual airport projects. A few airport sponsors have pursued select strategies outlined in plans, while one airport sponsor rejected the RASP for its decision making. Because regional airport planning is advisory, competing interests can derail development and implementation. Metropolitan planning organizations generally develop RASPs but have no authority over airport development. That authority rests with airports, which are not required to incorporate planning recommendations into their capital plans, and with FAA, which makes funding decisions on the basis of national priorities. In addition, airport, community, and airline interests may conflict in a region. For example, Philadelphia International does not support planning efforts that may divert traffic from its airport to alternate regional airports. By contrast, aligned interests and FAA involvement may aid regional planning and implementation, as has occurred in the Boston region.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that federal AIP funds are employed to their maximum benefit and to improve the level of regional- and airport-level coordination, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to develop an FAA review process for regional airport system plans to ensure that they meet FAA standards and airport system planning guidance as well as provide technical support for regional planners undertaking such planning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: Steps have been or are being taken as outlined below to address this recommendation. According to a senior FAA official responsible for airport planning, FAA expects to complete these steps soon. To address GAO's first recommendation to improve regional airport system planning (RASP), FAA's Office of Airports is (1) undertaking an update of FAA's system planning guidance in Advisory Circular (AC) 150/5070-7, The Airport System Planning Process, (2) incorporating revised language on regional system planning into the new AIP Handbook, and (3) developing additional guidance for use by FAA Regional Divisions and Airports District Offices to better integrate airport capital planning and decision making regarding regional system planning. First, the revised AC 150/5070-7 should better define the role of FAA and other stakeholders, including regional planners, in the RASP process, particularly in congested metropolitan areas. The revised AC should clarify the roles of FAA Headquarters, Regions and Airports District Office Staff, as well as opportunities for other FAA divisions and external stakeholders to participate in the preparation of RASPs and subsequent airport planning and development efforts. The guidance is also intended to clarify the FAA review process for regional system planning to ensure that final products are produced in accordance with FAA's system planning guidance and FAA standards. Second, FAA is currently updating the AIP Handbook to clarify the planning process for FAA and airport sponsors. The update of this handbook has been underway for some time, but is currently set for internal FAA legal review in September 2011 prior to issuance. Finally, FAA has not started developing the internal guidance to better integrate airport capital planning and decision making for use by FAA Regional Divisions and Airports District Offices, but will commence once the update to the system planning guidance in AC is completed.

    Recommendation: To ensure that federal AIP funds are employed to their maximum benefit and to improve the level of regional- and airport-level coordination, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to use its existing statutory authority to give priority to funding airport projects that are consistent with RASPs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: FAA is taking action to address this recommendation. According to a senior FAA official responsible for airport planning, FAA expects to complete its efforts soon to give priority funding to airport projects that are consistent with published regional airport system plans (RASP). FAA's Office of Airports is incorporating revised language on regional system planning into the new AIP Handbook. FAA is also updating the handbook to clarify the planning process for FAA and airport sponsors to follow in order to facilitate the prioritization of funding for projects that meet a regional need as identified in a RASP. This handbook update has been underway for some time, but is currently set for internal FAA legal review in September 2011 prior to issuance.

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