I’ve done several off-blog items on the subject of international airline alliances lately. Here they are:
- The Airplane Geeks podcast with Max and Court
- A guest post on the Cranky Flier
- An IAG podcast with Addison Schonland
TEMPE — Echoing Doug Parker’s plea for the government to “do no harm” to the airline industry, C. A. Howlett, US Airways’ top government affairs officer, outlined the challenges the industry — and US Airways in particular — face in the policy environment. His primary focus was the pending FAA reauthorization bill. Put off since 2007, the bill has been passed by the House but no action has been taken in the Senate. “We will maybe get this in calendar year 2009 but no one is betting anything heavy on that particular forecast,” he quipped.
Howlett is in no rush to get the House bill passed, because it has several provisions that give US Airways and other airlines pause. The bill increases the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) from $4.50 to $7.00. PFCs are used to fund airport improvements but are levied by airlines when passengers buy tickets. This, Howlett said, would add $2 billion to the airline industry’s costs. “Airports have the ability to raise revenues by raising our landing fees and charges,” he added. “Not all airports are the same. . . . [Raising landing fees is]a better way to finance projects.” Besides, he said, airports got $1.1 billion in the stimulus bill, plus $1 billion for security improvements.
Also of concern in the House’s FAA bill are labor issues regarding collective bargaining procedures, the passenger’s bill of rights provisions, and limitations on foreign repair stations. Howlett said that there is a provision inserted at the behest of the firefighters’ union that would cost US Airways alone $15 million per year at their hubs. (more…)
On American.com today, I review Aviation Infrastructure Performance: A Study in Comparative Political Economy, edited by Clifford Winston and Gines de Rus. The book, which I highly recommend, includes several reviews of how other countries’ aviation infrastructure sectors have performed under varying levels of privatization — and what lessons could be learned for the United States.
Should We Privatize Airports? [The American]
The Financial Times reports on government findings that one-third of London Heathrow Airport’s passengers are on connecting flights, which magnifies “[t]he importance of the role that connecting passengers play at the UK’s busiest airport [that] has long been a source of conflict among campaigners for and against a third runway.” The issue is a hot button in UK politics, with the opposition Conservatives dead set against a new runway and London’s mayor proposing a new airport in the Thames estuary east of the city.
The figures on transfer passengers illustrate the network effect benefits of big hubs like Heathrow. Today, more than 76 percent of connecting passengers connect from one non-UK destination to another — up from 57 percent twenty years ago. These connections redound to the benefit of London travelers as well, who have more destinations than their city alone would otherwise support. “Without [connecting passengers,] the scale of the network and range of destinations as well as the number of daily services that can be supported on routes would suffer, damaging Heathrow’s attractiveness compared to European rivals such as Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt and Amsterdam Schiphol.”
Building a new airport — a perennial idea — would do little to improve Heathrow as a hub. If Heathrow is not improved as a hub, it will eventually fall behind Frankfurt, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Amsterdam, and Madrid-Barajas as a major connecting hub. London doesn’t need a new airport; it has three perfectly good ones, all of which can be reasonable expanded, and two smaller ones. What it needs is a hub that can compete on even ground with its European rivals.
The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating item today (via the WSJ‘s great new Middle Seat Terminal blog) on the vigorous competition emerging between Moscow’s two main international airports. I’d long read of the older, state-owned Sheremetyevo Airport as a hellish transportation hub with limited services, long lines for immigration, and oft-solicited bribes. Then, according to report Daniel Michaels, it was forced to bring its game when the privately owned Domodedovo Airport renovated a terminal in the 1990s, built a rail link to downtown, and began wooing new airlines — and even carriers that had previously served Sheremetyevo.
Moscow’s airport rivalry highlights a paradox of the global aviation industry: Airlines compete fiercely with each other for customers, but they face many monopolist suppliers, such as air-traffic control systems, fuel distributors and airports. Resulting costs and poor services get passed on to travelers.
Regulators world-wide are starting to tackle the issue — and some see Moscow as a paradigm.
Britain’s competition authority, for example, last year considered breaking up BAA, the company that runs London’s three big airports. In testimony before the regulator, officials from the International Air Transport Association, a trade group, cited Moscow as evidence of the benefits that competition could bring London’s airport system. IATA testified that fees at Moscow’s fast-growing, privately owned Domodedovo Airport are as much as 20% lower than at Sheremetyevo, the state-owned hub of flag carrier Aeroflot.
This echoes a point I’ve made before: we have a relatively competitive airline sector and a relatively uncompetitive airport infrastructure sector.
The article also points out that privatization alone will not bring competition. Consolidating ownership in a single firm, either private (BAA) or public (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey), will not engender competition. One sees more competition (and lower published airport use fees) at the three San Francisco Bay Area airports, each of which are publicly owned by different authorities, than at the three New York area airports. And the case of Moscow confirms this.
But can private airports really work here in the United States? Two fascinating items from Brett Snyder illustrate an experiment in this. Branson, Missouri — a totally retro vacation spot not far from my hometown of Memphis — is building a brand-new airport entirely without federal money. The airport will be entirely privately owned and financed. It’s not just a new terminal project: this is an entirely new airport project — 7,000-foot runway, terminal, tower, general aviation facilities — designed to offer competitive service to low-fare airlines.
The owners of the airport have also kept their construction costs down. Writes Snyder: “To flatten the tops of the mountains, build a 7,000 ft runway, erect a terminal, construct a control tower, and create a 2.5 mile access road with 2 bridges has only cost $155 million. That’s $35 million in equity with the balance in debt. As a comparison, Indianapolis spent $1.1 billion on its new (much larger) terminal and control tower.”
We need more experiments in privatization like Branson, Chicago’s Midway airport, and others here in the United States. Competitive privatization may provide the needed funding for upgrading and maintaining our aviation infrastructure.
Britain is keeping in place — and raising — its Air Passenger Duty, a per-passenger charge levied on airline itineraries originating in Britain. The government had promised to design a new charge based on aircraft; the current charge does not correlate actual emissions to charges for them. Two aircraft of identical capacity but with different fuel efficiencies are assessed the same amount of APD. Even worse, private aircraft, cargo aircraft, and transfer passengers (mostly at Heathrow) are exempt from APD, meaning that commercial travelers to destinations in Britain are bearing the brunt of aviation’s climate impact there. If Britain is serious about taxing its own travelers and airlines to mitigate climate change, then it needs to align charges with actual impacts.
See also my earlier post on the challenges of green taxation in aviation.
Posted in Evan's News and Quick Takes, tagged air traffic control, airports, BAA, canada, competition, delays, Deregulation 2.0, dot, europe, faa, regulation, southwest, travel on October 23, 2008 | 1 Comment »
From the blog of the Reason Foundation, the think tank with one of the country’s leading aviation policy programs. Key quote:
The main downside is that once the three remaining slots in the Pilot Program are filled, nobody else can privatize their airport—unless and until Congress expands that legislation. And that has to be seen as a huge question mark. As of today, Congress is a full year late in reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, and with it the long-running airport grants program. If they give aviation such a low priority, it’s hard to imagine them rushing to expand an obscure piece of aviation legislation, especially to expand the scope of the dreaded P-word.
Still, city and county budgets are likely to be in worse shape next year than they are now. If America’s mayors and legislators call for expanded airport privatization, even a Democratic Congress might actually take them seriously.
DALLAS — Chicago’s Midway Airport is the first major airport in the United States to be privatized. Yesterday it was announced that it had been sold to “a consortium consisting of Citi Infrastructure Investors, YVR Airport Services (a joint venture between Vancouver airport and Citi Infrastructure Investors) and John Hancock Life Insurance,” according to the Financial Times. It will be operated by the Vancouver airport owner. The big surprise, according to Southwest Airlines folks I talked to last night, was how competitive the bidding was in a tight economy. The final price was $2.5 billion, and among the bidders were consortiums including the biggest names in airport infrastructure: Germany’s Hochtief, GECAS, Aeroports de Paris, and Australia’s Macquarie Group. (Southwest folks are very pleased with the opportunity to work with a private owner, and as the largest airline at Midway, they’ve been consulted and involved in the process all along.)
The great thing about this purchase is that it gives us an opportunity to test the performance of a privatized airport in the U.S. market, which is almost entirely under public ownership. It is part of the FAA’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program, and the Midway experience may clear the way for more infrastructure privatization in the future.
I haven’t had any luck getting the McCain campaign to fill me in on the details of his aviation plan (if he has one). His website has one mention of aviation, and it’s a throwaway press release on the air traffic control communications outage in August with a boilerplate call for reform in Washington. However, his twenty-six years in Washington and his chairmanship of the Senate committee that oversees aviation mean he has a pretty wide paper trail. Two of the most important issues on which he’s weighed in are air traffic control modernization (and how to fund it) and international aviation agreements.
John McCain has a track record of supporting market-based air traffic control reforms. In a 2001 interview with General Aviation News, which is full of revealing nuggets, he discussed a Reason Foundation report proposing a commercialized, nonprofit government corporation to provide air traffic control services (much like NAV CANADA). The interviewer was especially concerned about McCain’s support for user fees, the bete noire of the general-aviation community, and asked: “You have advocated ATC user fees in the past. Do you continue to support that approach?” McCain replied:
While there are a number of ideas about how to fund the aviation system, I have not yet come to a final conclusion about the best solution. The Commerce Committee will continue to examine different proposals and ideas, including a user-fee system. As I have often stated publicly, I am always open to new and fresh ideas on how to provide the proper funding to ensure a safe and efficient air-transportation system. The issue of user fees is closely linked to funding for the FAA, which is absolutely critical to the future of aviation in our country. The national air transportation system needs a predictable and reliable funding stream that is not subject to unnecessary budget pressures and gimmicks. A positive step in the right direction was the funding provided through the most recent FAA reauthorization bill, commonly known as AIR-21. But AIR-21 is not a permanent solution, and ensuring adequate funding for the long-term future of aviation remains a challenge.
While avoiding an endorsement of the Reason proposal, McCain did promise to include commercialization in the Commerce Committee deliberations on ATC: “However, the issue of ATC modernization is certainly an issue that the Commerce Committee will be looking into this year, and I expect ATC privatization will be included in the overall scope of the debate.”
User fees seem to appeal to McCain’s populist political persona and rhetoric. While acknowledging that user fees should not be structured to harm recreational users, he assails business jets’ use of the system: (more…)