Airport Finance:

Past Funding Levels May Not Be Sufficient to Cover Airports' Planned Capital Development

GAO-03-497T: Published: Feb 25, 2003. Publicly Released: Feb 25, 2003.

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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
(202) 512-4803


Office of Public Affairs
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Since Congress enacted the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21 Century (AIR-21) 3 years ago, much has changed. At that time, the focus was on reducing congestion and flight delays. Today, flights are being canceled for lack of business, two major air carriers are in bankruptcy, and attention has shifted from increasing the capacity of the national airspace system to enhancing aviation security. Furthermore, as the federal budget deficit has increased, competition for federal resources has intensified, and the costs of airport capital development are growing, especially with the new requirements for security. Nonetheless, analysts expect the demand for air traffic services to rebound. Until that time, the unexpected slump in air traffic creates a window of opportunity to improve the safety and efficiency of the national airport system.

Although there is general consensus among stakeholders that maintaining the integrity of the national airport system requires continual capital investment, estimates vary as to the type and cost of planned airport capital development required to ensure a safe and efficient system. For 2001 through 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has estimated annual planned capital development costs of about $9 billion, while the Airport Council International (ACI), a key organization representing the airport industry, has estimated annual costs of about $15 billion for 2002 through 2006. The estimates differ primarily because FAA's includes only projects that are eligible for federal funding, whereas ACI's includes projects that may or may not be eligible for federal funding. Neither FAA's nor ACI's estimate covers the airport terminal modifications needed to accommodate the new explosives detection systems required to screen checked baggage. According to ACI, the total cost of these modifications could be $3 billion to $5 billion over the next 5 years. From 1999 through 2001, airports received an average of about $12 billion a year for planned capital development. The primary source of this funding was bonds, which accounted for almost $7 billion, followed by federal grants and passenger facility charges, which accounted for $2.4 billion and $1.6 billion, respectively. The amounts and types of funding also varied by airport type. Of the $12 billion, large- and medium-hub airports received over $9 billion, and smaller airports received over $2 billion. If airports continue to receive about $12 billion a year for planned capital development, they would be able to fund all of the projects included in FAA's estimate, but they would not be able to fund about $3 billion in planned development estimated by ACI. While this projected shortfall could change with revisions in future funding, planned development, or both, it nevertheless indicates where funding differences may be the greatest. Options are available to increase or make better use of the funding for airport development, and these options would benefit different types of airports to varying degrees. For example, raising the current cap on passenger facility charges would primarily benefit larger airports, while increasing or redistributing Airport Improvement Program grant funds would be more likely to help smaller airports.