National Airspace System:

Regional Airport Planning Could Help Address Congestion If Plans Were Integrated with FAA and Airport Decision Making

GAO-10-120: Published: Dec 23, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 26, 2010.

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that the national airspace system will become increasingly congested over time, imposing costs of delay on passengers and regions. While transforming the current air-traffic control system to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) may provide additional en route capacity, many airports will still face constraints at their runways and terminals. In light of these forecasts, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to evaluate regional airport planning in metropolitan regions with congested airports. GAO (1) identified which airports are currently or will be significantly congested and the potential benefits of regional airport planning, (2) assessed how regions with congested airports use regional airport planning in decision making, and (3) identified factors that hinder or aid in the development and implementation of regional airport plans. GAO reviewed studies; interviewed FAA, airport, and other aviation and transportation officials; and conducted case studies in selected regions.

A number of airports are or will be significantly capacity constrained and thus congested within the next 16 years. However, many of them face environmental and other obstacles to developing additional airport capacity. In 2007, FAA identified 14 airports (in 10 metropolitan regions) that will be significantly capacity constrained by 2025, even assuming all currently planned improvements occur (see figure). Planned improvements include airport construction projects and implementation of NextGen technologies. Without these improvements, FAA predicts that 27 airports will be congested. According to the FAA assessment and other studies, regional airport planning may identify additional solutions, such as the increased use of alternate airports or other modes of travel, to help relieve airport congestion. From 1999 through 2008, 9 of the 10 metropolitan regions with airports forecast to be significantly capacity constrained by 2025 have received a total of $20 million in FAA funding for regional airport planning. Of those regions, 6 have developed or will develop regional airport system plans (RASP), which we found largely followed FAA's guidance for airport system planning. The remaining 4 regions have engaged in less comprehensive planning. FAA does not formally review RASPs, and they have been used selectively by FAA and airports in decision making for the planning and funding of individual airport projects. A few airport sponsors have pursued select strategies outlined in plans, while one airport sponsor rejected the RASP for its decision making. Because regional airport planning is advisory, competing interests can derail development and implementation. Metropolitan planning organizations generally develop RASPs but have no authority over airport development. That authority rests with airports, which are not required to incorporate planning recommendations into their capital plans, and with FAA, which makes funding decisions on the basis of national priorities. In addition, airport, community, and airline interests may conflict in a region. For example, Philadelphia International does not support planning efforts that may divert traffic from its airport to alternate regional airports. By contrast, aligned interests and FAA involvement may aid regional planning and implementation, as has occurred in the Boston region.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we reported that 14 airports are significantly capacity constrained and that by 2025, if no improvements are made, another 13 airports would also be significantly constrained. We found that FAA had provided $20 million in regional planning grants to airports in nine of the ten metropolitan areas with at least one airport forecast to be severely congested. However, we found that FAA does not formally review these regional airport system plans and only use them selectively in making investment decisions. We recommended that the FAA should develop a review process for regional airport system plans to ensure that they meet FAA standards and airport system planning guidance as well as provide technical support for regional planners undertaking such planning. On July 21, 2014, FAA issued a revised draft System Planning Advisory Circular (150/5070-7) that, among other things, includes a system plan checklist for reviewing the plans and identifies key elements that the plan must contain to check its consistency with regional airport plans. Also, the circular specifically cites our report as the reason for the checklist. As result of implementing the checklist, FAA will enhance its confidence that the plans are of sufficient quality to guide decision making.

    Recommendation: To ensure that federal AIP funds are employed to their maximum benefit and to improve the level of regional- and airport-level coordination, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to develop an FAA review process for regional airport system plans to ensure that they meet FAA standards and airport system planning guidance as well as provide technical support for regional planners undertaking such planning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we reported that 14 airports are significantly capacity constrained and that by 2025, if no improvements are made, another 13 airports would also be significantly constrained. We found that FAA had provided $20 million in regional planning grants to airports in nine of the ten metropolitan areas with at least one airport forecast to be severely congested. However, we found that FAA does not formally review these regional airport system plans and only use them selectively in making investment decisions. We recommended that to ensure that federal AIP funds are employed to their maximum benefit and to improve the level of regional- and airport-level coordination, FAA use its existing statutory authority to give priority to funding airport projects that are consistent with regional airport plans. In response, FAA updated its guidance in 2014 to include regional airport system plans as a required element for runway capacity projects. As a result, FAA will have to consider the plans' recommendations before making capacity investments in the future. Doing so will help better prioritize investments of federal grants.

    Recommendation: To ensure that federal AIP funds are employed to their maximum benefit and to improve the level of regional- and airport-level coordination, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to use its existing statutory authority to give priority to funding airport projects that are consistent with RASPs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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