Database Shows Billions Went to Airport Projects Deemed Low Priority
Nearly $2 billion for more than 3,100 airport construction and rehabilitation projects has been obligated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during the past five years even though the projects received low priority ratings, a Subsidyscope review of FAA data has found.
A searchable database released today on Subsidyscope includes National Priority Ratings (NPRs) for every project awarded a grant under the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) from fiscal year 2005 through most of fiscal year 2009. Users may search by airport name, code or state, and sort findings by NPR (ranging from 0 to 100, with higher numbers being the highest-priority projects), congressional district or whether funding came through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Derived in part from a Freedom of Information Act request, the database includes information on enplanements—the number of paying passengers who board scheduled airlines or charter planes—to give users a sense of the level of commercial activity at a particular airport. To provide a more complete picture, it also includes data on operations—takeoffs and landings of air carrier, air taxi, general aviation and military aircraft—when such numbers are available.
The AIP, a $3.5 billion program in FY 2008, funds work that enhances safety, protects the environment or otherwise improves the nation’s aviation system. AIP grants support runway construction, taxiway rehabilitation and many other types of projects. By design, the program results in cross-subsidies. For instance, many projects at non-commercial airports are partially financed using tax revenue from commercial passenger tickets.
FAA data show:
- Within the past five years, the FAA funded 3,139 projects (out of a total of 18,771) with NPRs below 41, cited by the agency as the threshold for discretionary AIP grants (no threshold is set for formula-driven entitlement grants, although the FAA says it considers how an airport uses entitlement money in deciding whether to award discretionary funds). Of the nearly $2 billion obligated for these low-priority projects, 30 percent came in the form of discretionary funding, 65 percent in entitlement funding and 5 percent in stimulus funding. According to the FAA, a priority rating is “one of several tools” it uses to assess projects. However, it adds, “[t]he NPR is the first evaluation factor and serves to categorize airport development in accordance with agency goals and objectives.” The AIP projects that scored below 41 represent nearly 17 percent of all approved projects during the five-year period.
- Eleven airports received total AIP allotments exceeding $100,000 per paying passenger from fiscal year 2005 through fiscal year 2008. General aviation airports, “reliever” airports near large commercial airports, and small commercial airports have received about one quarter of all AIP funding—about $4.5 billion of almost $18 billion—over the past five years.
- In terms of absolute dollars awarded, Los Angeles International Airport fared best during the five-year period, receiving $280 million through the AIP. It was followed by Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport ($262 million), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport ($235 million) and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ($209 million).
- Of more than $1 billion in AIP grants awarded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act from mid-March through mid-September 2009, Alaska received $82 million, more than any other state. California followed with $71 million. Among the stimulus-related projects in Alaska were a new $14.7 million airport for the community of Ouzinkie (population 225 as of the 2000 census); a new $14 million airport for Akiachak (population 585), and the $10 million rehabilitation of a runway in Allakaket (population 97).
AIP Background and Controversy
Created by Congress in 1982, the AIP was meant to aid the "planning and development of public-use airports that are included in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS)," a biennial list of more than 3,400 existing and proposed airports that are "significant to national air transportation," according to the FAA. For large and medium airports, AIP grants cover 75 percent of the cost of eligible projects (80 percent for noise-abatement projects). For smaller airports, 95 percent of eligible costs are covered.
Critics of the AIP assert that too much funding goes to non-commercial airports, which have few enplanements. The program gets its money from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which is supported by taxes on passenger tickets and aviation fuel, mostly generated by airlines using large or medium-sized commercial airports. Others, however, say that enplanements aren’t the only measure of an airport’s value.
Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla., for example, which received $270,063 in AIP funds for each enplanement from fiscal year 2005 through fiscal year 2008, has four runways used by general aviation, corporate, cargo and National Guard aircraft. Closed by the military in 1999, it has used its AIP money to convert to a civilian facility.
Airports Receiving Top Dollars Per Enplanement, FY2005-2008
|Airport||City||State||Service Level*||$/Enplanement Ratio|
|Fall River Mills||Fall River Mills||CA||GA||$271,825|
|Owatonna Degner Regional||Owatonna||MN||GA||$230,934|
|Double Eagle II||Albuquerque||NM||R||$208,790|
|Peachtree City-Falcon Field||Atlanta||GA||GA||$187,161|
|San Bernardino International||San Bernardino||CA||R||$168,726|
|George M Bryan||Starkville||MS||GA||$102,268|
|Lancaster County-Mc Whirter Field||Lancaster||SC||GA||$73,828|
Source: Subsidyscope analysis of FAA data.
*GA = General Aviation; R = Reliever
FAA data for fiscal year 2005, the most recent year available, show that U.S. passenger airlines accounted for 64 percent of the tax revenue that went into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, compared with 3 percent for general aviation. Large and medium hubs, on the other hand, received only 33 percent of AIP funding in fiscal year 2007. Small commercial and general aviation airports received 64 percent. In a statement to Subsidyscope, the FAA said that general aviation "accounts for more than 90 percent of the roughly 240,000 civil aircraft registered in the United States. The general aviation airports included in the FAA’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems provide the closest source of air transportation for about 19 percent of the population and are particularly important to rural areas."
The disproportionate allocation of AIP money to general aviation airports is tempered somewhat by the FAA’s approval of passenger facility charges—not to be confused with ticket taxes—of either $3 or $4.50 at 378 airports with commercial service. By and large, proceeds from such charges go back into the airport from which they originated. Larger airports also are able to issue bonds to finance improvements—generally not an option for their smaller counterparts.
Nonetheless, the FAA says, "[a]viation demand at the airport must justify [AIP] projects," and the Congressional Research Service noted in a May 2009 report that "[c]ritics often view the breadth of AIP spending, decreasing local share requirements, and ever widening project eligibilities as allowing for spending that is increasingly inefficient, unfocused, and of questionable federal purpose."
Competition for AIP grants is fierce, with many more applications than there are awards. Money is dispensed both through an entitlement fund, which uses formulas to identify high-priority projects such as safety-related runway expansions, and a discretionary fund, which is less restrictive but contains certain set-asides for noise-abatement projects and military airports. A relatively small portion of AIP funding comes in the form of earmarks. In 2009, 79 projects totaling $81.8 million were earmarked.1
In August 2009, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general expressed concern about the way the FAA awarded some AIP grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "Specifically," the IG wrote, "the economic merit of some FAA-approved projects may be subject to question and some projects may involve recipients with histories of grant management problems." The IG noted that the FAA had chosen more than 50 projects with NPRs below the agency’s self-imposed minimum of 62 for stimulus grants. The FAA’s responses to the IG’s report are here and here.
- U.S. House of Representatives. Committee on Appropriations. Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009. H.R. 1105/P.L. 111-8. Pgs 2035-2039.