$25bn for American airports amid major legacy challenges


Upgrading aging airports could have big economic benefits.

President Biden’s $2tn infrastructure plan has larger budget items than aviation but the $25bn earmarked for airports will be invaluable to a sector under real pressure all over the USA.

There are almost 20,000 airports in operation in America, 5,000 of which are in public use. Almost all of these are owned by local or state governments while a further 8,000 airports are in private use (which includes military facilities) and 6,000 are dedicated heliports. There are also hundreds of seaplane bases.

These huge numbers reflect the unusual history of aviation in the USA. While most developed countries in the mid-1900s invested in aviation primarily for international travel, the USA was one of the few to treat aviation as a mass-transit system for domestic travel.

Perhaps because of this, the USA’s airports include some of the world’s busiest but also oldest facilities still in operation, which has implications for capacity. Indeed, no American airports presently rate highly in global lists for quality of experience, with only Seattle ranked in the global top 40 (it is ranked 40th) in Airhelp scores.

This is a major economic challenge for the USA. The US Travel Association has reported that poor travel experience – mainly down to delays and airport capacity shortages – leads to passengers avoiding 38 million plane trips per year, costing the economy $35.7bn.

Things may also be about to get worse. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that pandemic notwithstanding, almost 80% of America’s busiest airports will be facing Thanksgiving-level capacity crunches on a once-a-week basis before the mid-2020s.

So, although $25bn of investment for airports is significantly lower than the funding being announced for the water sector, roads and some other areas of infrastructure, it will certainly go a long way to righting historic underinvestment. For example, 2019 saw the US Department of Transportation release just $478m in airport infrastructure grants to 232 airports, which was part of a five-year programme to provide just $3bn to support airport projects.

At the time, underinvestment led to the American Council of Engineering Companies’ chief executive, Linda Baur Darr, to declare: “If we are to win in the global economy, we must modernise our airport infrastructure. To do this Congress must increase AIP [Airport Improvement Programme] funding, which has languished for a decade.”