With Programs on the Line, CIRA Lobbies for Funding in Washington

 With a five-year pavement rehabilitation project already underway, CIRA needs to know sooner rather than later whether it can use federal grants or should secure other funds to finish the job. (Image credit: Christian Prenzler)

With a five-year pavement rehabilitation project already underway, CIRA needs to know sooner rather than later whether it can use federal grants or should secure other funds to finish the job. (Image credit: Christian Prenzler)

CIRA Administrators want to see some changes on Capitol Hill to make sure airport operations and capital projects stay funded for years to come.

Last week’s One Voice Task Force sent a delegation to Washington DC, including Central Illinois Regional Airport (CIRA) representatives lobbying Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The group sought government support for three key issues: FAA reauthorization, contract tower funding and an increase in passenger facility charges (PFCs).

The trip also offered CIRA and the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council the chance to discuss whether adding customs services could help the airport attract new business to McLean County.

FAA Reauthorization

CIRA Executive Director Carl Olson said for the last several years Congress has authorized FAA budgets on a temporary basis, making it difficult for the airport to plan capital improvement projects. With a five-year pavement rehabilitation project already underway, CIRA needs to know sooner rather than later whether it can use federal grants or should secure other funds to finish the job.

“The primary point we’re trying to communicate is we’d like [Congress] to get back to regular order, which means doing a multi-year reauthorization,” Olson said. The current FAA reauthorization period is set to expire next week, when Olson said Congress will likely approve another temporary funding measure, “kicking the can down the road” until July. However, changes within the Senate suggests there could be a multi-year authorization later this summer.

 While contract towers handle 28% of all air traffic control operations in the US, they only account for 14% of the FAA’s air traffic control budget.

While contract towers handle 28% of all air traffic control operations in the US, they only account for 14% of the FAA’s air traffic control budget.

Contract Tower Funding

CIRA’s air traffic control tower operates under a contract between the FAA and a private air traffic control services provider. The Trump administration’s new FY2019 budget calls for language to defund the contract program, meaning CIRA needs to come up with its own funding or fight the proposed change to avoid losing its tower.

Rewind: In 2013, when the FAA planned to eliminate funding for the contract tower program, CIRA partnered with other airports across the country to fight the move in court. Olson said while litigation was successful, “It’s kind of a constant cloud over our head--we always worry are they going to try and do that again.”

The Data: Olson said while contract towers handle 28% of all air traffic control operations in the US, they only account for 14% of the FAA’s air traffic control budget, making the program highly cost-effective. The program also employs a large number of veterans--70% of its employees served in the military.

“It does not make sense to me [why federal administrators want to cut the program],” said Olson. “It’s a key safety feature and in this case those services are being provided in literally the most cost-efficient manner possible.”

Conversations with staff from the offices of Illinois Senators Tammy Duckworth (D) and Dick Durbin (D) revealed the legislators’ support for CIRA’s concerns, Olson said.

Increased Passenger Facility Charges (PFCs)

With the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan “dead on arrival” and FAA grant funding levels uncertain, increasing PFCs can help the airport meet its infrastructure goals. The program created by Congress decades ago gives a portion of fees added to local airline ticket sales back to airports to use for safety and capital improvement projects.

Pocket Change: Olson said the FAA hasn’t increased the PFC cap in 18 years, meaning the current $4.50 rate has just $2.20 of spending power. “So it doesn’t buy as much as it used to.”

The airport authority isn’t as concerned with what the cap should be. “We think it’s more important to have a moderate increase...and as a part of that, [the cap] should be indexed to inflation or on a set increase,” Olson said.

While increased PFCs would mean an additional charge for passengers, Olson said the money is all local--spending is controlled by local airport authority commissioners and spent locally on contracts, trades and suppliers to improve the airport.

Customs Services

A proposed joint initiative between CIRA and the EDC aims to make McLean County a better place to do business with a new customs service at the airport.

The idea is to save time and money for businesses that regularly use their own aircraft for international travel.

“Say, for example, you have a company in Canada that operates a corporate aircraft that flies into Bloomington-Normal to do business. Right now they have to stop somewhere prior to CIRA to clear customs into the US. It’s very expensive and time-consuming,” said Olson.

The service would initially be available only for general aviation and corporations, not passenger or air cargo traffic.

“This would not be funded by the taxpayers,” said Olson. “This would be funded by the people that would actually use the customs clearances.”

More research is needed to determine whether adding the service makes sense for CIRA.

“The firsts steps are to identify what level of demand there are for these services and at what price point,” said Olson. “Then we would approach customs and border protection to explore the possibility of introducing what’s called a user fee customs office here at the airport. But that’s down the road.”

Key Takeaway: With federal funding uncertain, airport officials will continue contingency planning to maintain and improve services at CIRA, including expanding the airport authority's taxing jurisdiction to include rural McLean County. While similar efforts failed in 2015 and 2017, Olson said earlier this year the airport authority is still interested in pursuing the measure.