Airport Development Needs:

Estimating Future Costs

RCED-97-99: Published: Apr 7, 1997. Publicly Released: Apr 7, 1997.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reviewed airport development needs, focusing on: (1) the estimated capital development needs made by airport and airline groups and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to determine why they differ; (2) an up-to-date range of estimates of what airport capital development needs are likely to be for the 5-year period from 1997 through 2001; and (3) the key factors that affect airport capital development needs and how these factors are likely to affect such needs during the next 5 years.

GAO noted that: (1) the main reason for the differences in the airports', the airlines', and FAA's estimates of airport capital needs is that they are based on widely divergent views about which types of development projects and airports to include in their estimates; (2) using the most current and complete data, compiled from FAA, airports, state aviation agencies, and private sources, GAO developed four estimates ranging from $1.4 billion to $10.1 billion annually for the 5-year period from 1997 through 2001, depending on how needs are defined; (3) GAO believes that providing a range of estimates for future airport capital needs is more useful than a single estimate because it provides various perspectives for policymakers to consider; (4) the estimate of $1.4 billion per year is based on narrowly defining needs to include only projects eligible for federal grants to meet safety, security, and environmental needs as well as to maintain the existing infrastructure at the airports in the national system, but it does not include the bulk of other needs, such as projects to improve or expand airport infrastructure; (5) the estimate of $10.1 billion per year is based on broadly defining needs to include all projects, regardless of priority or grant eligibility, at all airports that are, or are currently planned to become, eligible to receive federal or state support; (6) regardless of how needs are defined, estimates will not necessarily correspond to how much airports will ultimately spend on capital development because of limitations in estimating future needs and projected costs, unanticipated needs, complexities in decision-making, and funding constraints; (7) several key factors influence airport capital development needs, most notably growth in aviation activity and meeting FAA-recommended design standards, such as runway length, to achieve full productivity for the aircraft already using the airport; (8) these two factors account for two-thirds of the estimated $30.6 billion in projects eligible for federal grants over the next 5 years at airports in the national system; and (9) three other factors, the reconstruction of existing infrastructure that is beyond its useful life, upgrades to the existing infrastructure to prepare the airport facilities to accommodate the introduction of different aircraft, and addressing safety, security, and environmental concerns, account for the remaining one-third of planned capital development projects.

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