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Congress wants to make going to the airport less miserable

Going to the airport can be an unpleasant experience. The bipartisan infrastructure plan could help.

A crowd of travelers outside an airport terminal.
A crowded Terminal 2 at LAX during Memorial Day weekend 2021.
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

If you’re flying out of Singapore Changi, which aviation survey and research group Skytrax ranks as the world’s best airport, you can spend time before your flight in the airport’s tropical butterfly garden.

At second-ranked Tokyo Haneda, you can enjoy one of several open-air rooftop restaurants and a rapid transit monorail system that links terminals. At Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, rated ninth, you can go to a free art museum annex before heading to one of 223 gates spread around a single-terminal concept.

If you’re flying out of the US, however, the best part of a trip to the airport is probably getting to leave. After standing in long lines, waiting in overcrowded gates, and managing delays, wanting to get out of the airport as soon as possible is understandable. And it certainly doesn’t help that the features that push other airports to the top of the rankings would be unrecognizable to someone flying in the US.

No American airport cracks Skytax’s top 30; George Bush Intercontinental Airport, in Houston, is the highest-ranked American airport at No. 31, and only Houston, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, Denver, and Atlanta’s airports show up in the top 50.

Not only are few US airports among the world’s best, but overall, they are in bad shape: In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America’s aviation system a D+, largely because airports’ basic inefficiencies and lack of space lead to problems like delays and overcrowding. The airport grade was worse than those of other, oft-maligned parts of US transportation infrastructure, like bridges, which earned a C, and roads, which were given a D.

However, federal help for airports may be on the way. The White House and a bipartisan group of senators are working on a plan for a roughly $1 trillion investment in US infrastructure, a number that includes $25 billion for airports.

That bipartisan infrastructure framework (known as the BIF) still has a long runway ahead of it before passage, although an initial agreement has been reached in the Senate. The deal still faces potential challenges in the House, where progressive Democrats have signaled a wariness to back it without guaranteed moderate support for a separate budget package, which includes investments like universal pre-K and green card reforms. But the prognosis is positive overall — a welcome sign for airports needing funding for long-awaited improvements.

If the bipartisan framework does become law, airports’ budgetary needs are so severe — and their spatial challenges so significant — that $25 billion is likely not enough to be a cure-all for their infrastructure challenges. Still, that money would be of help — not necessarily to make US airports more luxurious, but to increase efficiency during check-in, security screenings, and boarding; make air travel a little greener; and to ensure that airports built before television was a thing can meet the needs of 21st-century travel.

American airports were built for 1940s air travel. Flying is very different today.

American airports’ problems are familiar to travelers. In nearly every US airport, the physical space is insufficient to accommodate modern needs, from security checks to health protocols. There are more flights than there are gates, causing delays. And not every airport can afford the latest air traffic control technology, affecting their ability to manage their airspace efficiently.

The growing number of passengers could exacerbate these issues: Over the past two years, ASCE found that air travel growth has outpaced growth in the number of flights, and while the number of passengers obviously took a huge hit during the pandemic, travel is poised to rebound this summer. And even during the pandemic, cargo — another critical factor in the aviation infrastructure equation — took off.

At Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, CEO Candace McGraw said cargo volumes increased 25 percent year to date in 2021, and passenger volumes are beginning to return to normal levels. The US just doesn’t have the infrastructural capacity to meet that type of demand.

We’ve already seen what happens when sudden changes squeeze airports for space: longer lines, more crowds, and delays. New regulations after 9/11 meant that airports needed to adjust for the creation of Transportation Security Administration checkpoints and make room for new baggage screening systems in terminals.

For older airports, in particular, it became a challenge to make everything fit and to accommodate the extra lines they created. Now, with the pandemic, there’s a need for health screening checkpoints, further complicating airports’ spatial geometry, and pressure to renovate HVAC systems and expand cleaning procedures, both of which require additional funding.

The ASCE found that flight delay minutes rose from just over 60 million in 2017 to nearly 100 million in 2019. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that weather only accounts for 3 percent of those delays; the biggest culprits are the aircraft arriving late (33 percent), a national aviation system delay (29 percent), and an air carrier delay (25 percent). Tor Anderzen, the author of ASCE’s infrastructure report card, said infrastructure challenges can be blamed for a majority of delays because capacity issues snowball.

For example, let’s say a plane is late arriving in New York because of an air carrier delay — passengers cannot board yet because the plane hasn’t docked at the gate. The plane is at the airport, but because demand is so close to terminal capacity, it has to taxi on the runway for a while before coming in. Now, boarding for that plane’s next flight is delayed 10 minutes. When the plane flies to its next destination, it’s bringing that delay with it, creating a dilemma for air traffic control when it lands in Atlanta. That leads to more delays. By the time it takes off again, to go to Las Vegas, passengers are now looking at a 30-minute delay.

“People are getting frustrated with the system because of the delays,” Anderzen said. “The cost of underinvesting in our aviation infrastructure is not only measured in minutes of delay, in the cost in dollars for lost income. It also ... does impact our mental health as travelers.”

Many of the problems US airports face can be traced back to the fact that most of them were planned and built in a completely different era of travel.

US airport construction really accelerated after World War II, after the Federal Airport Act of 1946 provided grants that could finance up to half of the cost of an airport project. Investments in maintenance and expansion remained relatively low until 1970, when the law was repealed in favor of the Airport and Airway Development Act, which authorized the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), a $3 billion per year (on average) federal grant program, to provide predictable annual funding to airports. That money is helpful, but it only goes so far, especially because it’s limited to areas of the airport terminal meant for public use, meaning it can’t, for instance, improve gate areas in their totality.

More money with fewer restrictions is needed because, as frustrating as things are now, with new coronavirus procedures and a potential spike in travel demand, without further construction and investment they may soon be worse.

US airports need to solve their space problems

The only major US airport to open in the last 30 years is Denver International Airport, a mega project in which the Denver Regional Council of Governments had the luxury of selecting a space in the 1980s rather than the 1940s. The result, which cost $8.2 billion by today’s standards, was North America’s largest airport by land area, with far more space for terminals and concourses than is typical.

Other airports have not been as fortunate. In the years since their initial construction, they have undergone remodeling and expansion, but they’re often limited in how far they can go. At Reagan National Airport, for example, experts say there’s simply no more room to build; at this point, it is what it is.

Most airports, even if far from the city center, are surrounded by residential and commercial development. Localities are stuck with the plots of land they chose for their airports so many decades ago, and there’s very little room for expansion. Even in areas where new land could be acquired, it can prove nearly impossible to buy or build given environmental impact regulations and, critically, community resistance — like airport noise complaints from homeowners.

“They generally have to operate within the footprint they have at this point,” said Janet Bednarek, an aviation history professor at the University of Dayton. “Whatever expansion they had came in the ’50s and ’60s, and that pretty much set the limits to where they could be.”

Ideally, cities with aging airports would be given federal money to start from scratch, as Denver did. That would allow municipalities to design spaces with modern security, health, and capacity considerations in mind. That would mean massive new terminals, plenty of runways, check-in areas with ample space for TSA checkpoints, and maybe even a butterfly garden or two.

But the price tag of the Denver airport shows why that’s not possible. Instead, cities will have to work with the $25 billion that may be coming, which, at best, will allow for remodeling. That comes with far more challenges than simply building from scratch, ranging from utilizing creative architectural choices to maximize existing space (as Reagan would need to do); finding ways to divert passengers and planes around construction without overly worsening the travel experience; and, of course, being restricted to the airport’s current footprint.

Overall, building a new airport is just easier than doing renovations — and more likely to solve US airports’ most common problems. But a renovation is cheaper than new construction, and though arguably unable to completely eliminate all issues, is certainly better than doing nothing at all.

There’s some federal funding for airports, but cities and states are mostly on their own

The aforementioned federal programs aside, Congress has seen airports as state and local responsibilities since 1926, when federal law established state and local governments as the sole proprietors and operators of airports. With the exception of the two airports serving the District of Columbia — Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport — American airports are still owned and managed at the local level.

That’s not the case internationally: In China, the government chooses sites and finances the planning and construction of airports, with particular attention paid toward international gateway airports like the new Beijing Daxing International Airport. Bednarek notes this difference makes it hard to directly compare even the largest US airports with those considered the world’s best.

“When [flyers are] comparing some of these international airports to American airports, generally, they’re talking about airports that are consciously designed by national governments in these countries as international gateways,” Bednarek said. “They’re usually the airport that foreigners fly into when they come into the country.”

The US didn’t design its infrastructure to have one showstopping airport that all international travelers come into — in fact, when some of its oldest airports were built, international travel was still done primarily by sea. And no state or local government has the space or money to try to build one.

“In the US ... it would be up to the local authorities to decide what to do,” she continued. “We’re a very big country, and there’s lots of international airports. So it’s a much more diffuse airport market.”

American airports are funded with a mix of revenue they generate, federal grants, and financing through options like selling bonds.

Federally, each of the roughly 400 US airports with 10,000 or more passengers automatically receives an entitlement from the AIP each year. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the US, typically gets an entitlement of around $130 million. Otherwise, airports generate revenue mostly by charging rents to hotels, restaurants, rental car companies, parking lot operators, and, of course, to airlines for landing fees and terminal space. They also pocket the passenger facility charge (PFC), a collection fee of up to $4.50 on ticket prices, capped by the federal government, essentially a tax on travelers.

These funding sources are enormous revenue generators — parking and rental cars alone generated over $6 billion in 2018 for the 30 large hub airports, Dave NewMyer, a professor emeritus of aviation management and flight at Southern Illinois University, said — but a lot of it goes toward the daily costs of operation, like salaries and wages, contractual services like snow removal or engineering, and repairs and maintenance. That leaves little, if anything, for big construction projects, meaning when large projects are approved, state and local airport authorities have to sell bonds — that is, take on debt — to finance them.

“A lot of people wonder why we don’t rank as high, as far as some of the surveys are done,” NewMyer said. “There’s not a lot of spare money to do that.”

Can the infrastructure plan help make air travel less terrible?

Details of the BIF’s proposed $25 billion in FAA funding aren’t finalized, but the current plan focuses on addressing repair backlogs and investing in emission-reduction technologies. So far, it seems travelers can be optimistic about seeing some improvements — lawmakers in particular seem dedicated to terminal upgrades, which ASCE identified as the top investment need.

Grants to airports to address their aging terminal infrastructure would allow them to potentially expand terminals, or at least get creative in airports where there is no room for expansion.

“Many airports have booming demand, more aircraft coming in than they have gates for,” Greg Pecoraro, the president of the National Association of State Aviation Officials, said. “We need more gates, bigger terminals, and more capacity to be able to park aircraft.”

New York City’s LaGuardia Airport — which is surrounded by development — is an example of what a successful BIF might be able to help fund.

This year, the airport, commonly regarded as the worst in the US, renovated its Terminal B through a public-private partnership — a new trend in aviation. The $8 billion project is the largest public-private partnership in American aviation history, and led to the creation of 72 new gates, a new garage, new concourse, renovated roadway, new taxiway, an enormous mosaic wall, an enlarged departures hall, and free Covid-19 tests. The terminal is 50 percent larger than the one it replaced.

To get around space constraints, LaGuardia reconfigured its airfield layout, rebuilding previously separate terminals as one contiguous building through new construction and moving the entire facility to use more of its land. Overall, the new construction better utilized the existing space in a manner not necessarily replicable at all US airports, but with a creativity that could be repeated with the help of federal funding.

As a public-private partnership, two-thirds of the tab is being paid for through the existing passenger and rental fees and funding from LaGuardia Gateway Partners, in exchange for a lease to operate and maintain Terminal B, and collect its revenue, through 2050. The cost of the project, and the amount of private financing necessary, provides a look into just how expensive a successful terminal modernization project can be.

Airport advocates say BIF funding is a step in the right direction, but insufficient given the enormity of the challenges — especially considering possible short-term and long-term needs, like the ability for travelers to park and charge electric vehicles, funding for research into eco-friendly fuel sources, and terminal accommodations for the air travel of the future, such as air taxis and uncrewed aircraft systems.

Still, should the BIF pass, “people can hopefully expect a more seamless experience,” Pecoraro said. “When they check in, they have an easier time going through security, an easier time checking their baggage and picking up their baggage on the other end. They have easy access to a flight that will arrive and take off in a timely manner because of an improved aviation management system. The route that the aircraft takes will be more direct to its destination, which means lower fuel costs, which means ticket prices remain as low as possible. When people arrive at their destination airport, there’s a gate waiting for them, so that the aircraft pulls right up to the gate.”

Successful passage of the BIF does not mean US travelers will be seeing butterfly gardens or museum annexes in their local airports. Even basic improvements will require massive investment: The Airports Council International estimates that the US backlog for capital infrastructure projects is at least $115 billion over five years.

By that estimate, $25 billion from the BIF could fund almost a quarter of the needed projects over the next five years — and passengers would be able to tell. The flight experience at a BIF-renovated airport won’t be exactly fun, but it should be far less stressful.

Correction, August 2: An earlier version of this article misattributed an estimate of the amount required to fund needed airport capital projects to the Airports Council International. AIC estimates at least $115 billion is needed over the next five years, meaning the BIF could fund nearly a quarter of needed airport infrastructure projects in that time frame.

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