Rosen Questions Airport CEOs on Airport Infrastructure Investments Needed to Boost Travel Industry

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Yesterday, during a Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovation hearing, U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) questioned Ms. Danette Bewley, President and CEO of the Tucson Airport Authority; and Mr. Sean Donohue, CEO of the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport about the current state of aviation infrastructure and what investments Congress can make to support the travel and tourism industry. A transcript of the Senator’s remarks can be found below, and a video of the Senator’s full exchange can be found aquí.

ROSEN: Thank you, Chair Sinema, of course, Ranking Member Cruz. It’s a really important hearing you’re having today. I appreciate all of the witnesses for being here. And, boy, we sure have to revive our travel and tourism economy because in Nevada, travel and tourism are essential to our economy, and our airports serve as the gateway to the Silver State, my state, for millions of domestic and international travelers. In 2019, Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport saw over 50 million passengers. We generated nearly $35 billion in economic output and supported approximately a quarter of a million jobs. The Reno-Tahoe International Airport saw a passenger increase of almost 6 percent in 2019, which was the fifth consecutive increase in year-over-year passenger growth. In short, our airports are growing. But the pandemic created steep declines in passenger traffic and related revenues, which exacerbated existing airport infrastructure needs and funding challenges. 

So, as the pandemic winds down in the United States and Congress takes up infrastructure legislation, funding for airports needs to be a few things. [It] needs to be long-term. [It] needs to be dependable, and in order to promote certainty and allow for large capital projects and investments. 

So, Ms. Bewley, and Mr. Donohue, how can Congress ensure that the investments we make in aviation infrastructure help revive the travel and tourism industry that was devastated by the pandemic, particularly via projects that enhance the traveler experience? Ms. Bewley, you can go first, please. 

BEWLEY: Thank you, Senator Rosen. The federal funding stream for projects can be used for improvements to outdated terminal facilities, upgrading HVAC filtration. At our airport alone, we can only upgrade to a certain level because of the age of the system, and we’re very limited. So in order for us to even have a higher grade HEPA filter, like hospitals, we would have to rip out our systems and start over. We have an aging facility that maybe only has 20 years of life left in it if we’re lucky, and we’re probably going to need to expand our gates and our hold rooms. So, upgrading those systems are really important. This also supports the airlines because we can improve the gates, we can add space, we can build space for concessions, which then brings us the opportunity to enhance or revenue stream and outreach even further into the community to bring businesses into the airport so they too can take advantage of the opportunity of being around travelers. So, those are just a few things that we can do. On the airfield, the infrastructure out there, most airports are very old. Our airport is probably fifty, sixty years old as far as our terminal, excuse me, our airfield. So the upgrades that we’re talking about in our airfield safety enhancement program are going to take us far, far, far into the future, and those are good investments. And as far as making sure the money is being used appropriately, well if it’s being funded through an FAA source, you know, they’re the guardians of the AIP funds. They are our connection to all of you, who help supply the funds, so we would certainly follow the same processes that we always do to make sure the project is eligible under safety, security, customer service, you know, you name it, and following all of the grant assurances that we always do. 

ROSEN: So, Mr. Donohue, how can we revive travel and tourism and make sure the customer experience? How do we enhance that traveler experience while reviving our tourism and travel industry?

DONOHUE: Sure, Senator Rosen probably one of the examples that goes to your point is during the pandemic, we continued with the project at DFW where we added gates to our international terminal. We just opened those gates in the last sixty days, and that has significantly helped us as the travel has recovered. It’s provided necessary relief for the airlines and, at the same time, has increased the customer experience because we were able to incorporate new technology to improve the customer’s experience through the terminal. I would also say that, you know, when you think of airports, and you look at infrastructure investment, we typically go to terminals. And terminals are critical. They’re critical to handle the volumes, they’re critical to have that customer experience that you mentioned. But infrastructure at our airports is starting to get old, and at DFW, as I said, we’re coming on fifty years. We have 130 bridges at DFW airport. We have 1,200 lane miles of road landside on our airport. And then, when you look at all of the airfield projects we do, many of those go to the heart of everything we’re concerned at on this call, which is safe and secure operations. So, believe me, when it comes to how we spend money at airports, yes, the customer experience is critical, but the infrastructure also goes to the heart of a safe and secure aviation system in this country. 

ROSEN: Well, I sure would agree with you there.