Airline CEO Versus President Biden: Quit Wasting Money Making Airports Beautiful

The starting gun for New York LaGuardia’s $10 billion modernization – without even bringing transit to the airport – was then-Vice President Joe Biden’s 2014 comments suggesting the close-in New York City facility was something out of a third world country.

The airport bears little resemblance to what it used to. It’s far more modern, but also with more walking from curb-to-gate. It’s not nearly as efficient for going places quickly which is the point of an airport.

Now President Biden is taking on U.S. airport modernization more broadly with comments this week.

Not a single solitary American airport, not one, ranks in the top 25 in the world. The United States of America, not one airport ranks in the top 25 in the world. What in the hell is the matter with us? It means commerce. It means income. It means security. And we don’t even rank in the top 25.

Billions of dollars in funding is flowing to airports as part of the President’s infrastructure spending law. But the CEO of Frontier Airlines says this gets it all wrong.

Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle on airports: “They need to stop building Taj Mahals” and build gates

— Leslie Josephs (@lesliejosephs) September 15, 2022

Biffle is right, but putting him in charge of airport infrastructure wouldn’t be a good idea either.

  • Prettier buildings can be pleasant, and contribute to a modern aesthetic. That can be good for branding. But any branding of the U.S. to non-residents happens largely by draconian entry requirements, Visa process, and Customs and Border Protection interaction at the airport – more than via high-end retail.

  • The purpose of an airport is to get somewhere efficiently. Infrastructure investment, when funded at least partly using private dollars (as in LaGuardia) tends to sell revenue streams from the terminal for up front construction dollars. So the terminal needs to maximize sales to passengers, which means taking them through longer walks to gates in order to maximize sales along the way. Retails sales is why some airports, like Chicago O’Hare and Dallas – Fort Worth, have removed moving walkways.

  • You can only sell these revenue streams once, so it matters how you spend the money. Biffle is right to see a tradeoff between beautifying airports and actual airport capacity.

  • Investment in capacity would mean gates (many of the most desirable airports are locked up by their primary airline tenants) but would also mean more runways and technological investment in air traffic control outside of the vagaries of annual appropriation cycles. What you prioritize for investment matters.

The Frontier Airlines approach minimizes cost at all costs. Frontier and Allegiant, for instance, are the only carriers serving the ‘South Terminal’ (basically two double wide trailers) in Austin. Even Spirit Airlines pays the fees for the main terminal.

Frontier Airlines is working with Denver airport to stop using jet bridges and start boarding and deplaning via stairs. Customers don’t like it, but Frontier’s model isn’t about customer experience it’s a bet that customers will accept it for low costs.

  • They don’t have to pay for jet bridges, or jet bridge maintenance (the motorized bridges break down).
  • In the limit it can be quicker to load and unload using two sets of stairs, bring passengers off the plane from the back and load from the front with whatever cleaning must be done happening in between.
  • It sometimes snows in Denver.

There needs to be a balance in airport investment, and the proper balance is found by remembering what an airport is for. When renovations increase the walking distance to gates, and increase security wait times, those aren’t desirable. When renovations increase the cost of using the airport so that tickets become less affordable at the margin – higher fees to airlines, pushing out ultra-low cost carriers who compete down fares of legacy carriers – that’s not desirable either.

At the same time basic upkeep is needed at a minimum, like putting money into the bathrooms of the DFW airport C concourse.

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