Congress close on airport funding

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – New funds will flow soon to help relieve congestion in the skies and at airports nationwide. And some of the help is coming to Texas.

Congress is trying to wrap up work on the second of two bills needed to provide an additional $40 billion to airports and the air traffic control system over the next three years. Lawmakers are hopeful of resolving disputes over nonaviation provisions in the bill by next week.

"We have neglected our aviation system for far too long, and this past summer was a wake-up call," Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

Donald Carty, chairman and chief executive officer of American Airlines Inc., said the new funds would help relieve the maddening delays and congestion travelers experienced this summer. But Mr. Carty and other aviation experts said it would take years to build new airport terminals and runways and install high-tech equipment.

"No one can say the problem is a lack of funding," Mr. Carty said. "But we still have a lot of work to do."

Some industry officials warned that growing passenger traffic means that congestion and delays would get worse before they get better.

"You think this summer was bad. The next one will make this one look like a picnic," said Frederick Smith, chairman and chief executive officer of FedEx Corp.

Next year, annual funding for Texas airports will increase 77 percent to $131 million. That compares with $74 million for this year.

Under a formula based on airport traffic, $15.6 million would go to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, up from $7.8 million this year. And $16.2 million would go to Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, up from $8 million.

The legislation also entitles Dallas Love Field to $6.4 million, up from $3.2 million. And Fort Worth Meacham International would receive $1 million, up from $500,000.

All the airports could apply for additional grants that will be made by the Transportation Department.

Kevin Cox, senior executive vice president at D/FW, said the extra funds would help finance a $2.5 billion development plan that includes a new international terminal, a people-mover system and expansions of the runways and taxiways.

Mr. Cox said most of the new federal funding probably would be earmarked for the runway and taxiway improvements.

He said D/FW plans to extend three runways, expand areas where aircraft are held while awaiting departure and build an eighth runway.

"All this is designed to stay ahead of the airfield demand that is predicted in the immediate years to come," he said.

The new funding was established in the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, also known as Air 21. Congress approved and President Clinton signed Air 21 in April.

Funds are expected to become available next week when Congress approves and the president signs the annual transportation appropriations bill. The 2001 federal budget year begins Sunday.

"Our aviation system is about to receive a much-needed injection of unprecedented investment," Mr. Shuster said.

At a hearing later, aviation experts said the extra funds in Air 21 would take time to make a difference. They also said improvements are needed by local airport boards, the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, which operates the air traffic control system.

Mr. Carty suggested that airline executives be given limited immunity from antitrust laws so they could discuss scheduling changes to relieve congestion at the worst airports.

"This would allow the airlines involved to talk about how best to arrange their schedules, and help prevent a bad day from becoming a customer-service catastrophe," Mr. Carty said.