NEW YORK — Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump held up America’s airports as a symbol of the nation’s decay.
“You land at LaGuardia, you land at Kennedy, you land at LAX, you land at Newark,” Trump said during the first presidential debate. “We’ve become a third world country.”
Newly built airports and passenger terminals in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and China were the envy of the world, he said. The three nations continue to invest heavily in their state-owned and funded airlines and aviation systems.
No U.S. airport receives a five-star rating from SkyTrax, a respected airline and airport rating and review group. There are only three four-star airports: San Francisco, Houston-Hobby and Cincinnati.
The quality of U.S. airports receive low marks from both sides of the political aisle. Vice President Joe Biden also described LaGuardia Airport as “like a third world country.” That airport is already undergoing a more than $5 billion modernization.
The U.S. “was built on a world class infrastructure system,” said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association. “We fell asleep in the ’70 and ’80s” as Asian airports were developed. The United States looks like it’s falling behind, he said.
As part of his plan for his first 100 days, unveiled in October, Trump has proposed a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure and energy projects over a decade, focusing on U.S. roads, bridges and airports.
“We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it,” he said in his victory speech in the early hours of Wednesday.
Still, fixing American airports won’t be easy. Improving the facilities is not as easy as directly committing new federal dollars and requires a change in how airports are funded in the U.S., say aviation experts.
Airport funding breaks down into three broad categories.
The first, the federally funded Airport Improvement Program, goes to safety- and operations-related improvements to runways, taxiways and aprons where aircraft park. This program funded the system that prevented Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s plane from careening onto the highway near LaGuardia one night in late October.
Thanks to these kinds of investments — totaling $3.2 billion this year — America has among the safest airports in the world. That’s critical to safe and seamless travel in the U.S., but cranky passengers don’t see or feel the benefits in terms of their comfort.
Transforming airports won’t be determined by federal funding at all, but rather a $4.50 fee on each leg of your ticket that goes directly to the airport. These fees make up the second category of funding.
How much an airport has available to spend depends on how many people are flying there.
These Passenger Facility Charges can be used for new terminals, gates, ticket counters, lobbies or ground transportation like the AirTrain system at New York’s JFK.
Airports collected $3 billion from these charges in 2015, though it’s estimated that U.S. airports required $15 billion to support infrastructure improvements.
The fees haven’t increased since 2000, and many of the trade associations for tourism and airports favor an increase to $8.50.
The Airports Council International North America last year identified 30 major projects that could be funded with an increase, but they are unglamorous jobs like terminal expansions and elevators.
Will you get to enjoy fancy restaurants, shops, modern parking or rental car facilities? Neither Trump nor traveler fees can help there. Those kinds of improvements are funded by the airlines and other businesses.