January 26, 2017

LOW-HANGING FRUIT FOR TRUMP: Make America’s Airports Great Again. By international standards, airports in the U.S. are terrible, but there’s an easy fix available without spending any federal money. Just follow the example of the rest of the world. From my piece in City Journal:

Outside the United States, in cities such as London, Paris, Madrid, Zurich, Frankfurt, Rome, Istanbul, Mumbai, Sydney, and Buenos Aires, public-private partnerships are transforming the industry, with airports getting sold or leased to private-management companies that focus on pleasing passengers. To make a profit, these managers must hold down costs, while enticing customers with lots of flights, competitive fares, and terminals with appealing stores and restaurants. London’s three airports have improved dramatically since they were privatized—first as a single company, and then divided into three separate firms so as to encourage competition. Heathrow, currently eighth in the international ranking, has been so intent on attracting passengers that it built and runs a nonstop express train linking the terminal to central London. To deal with surging demand, its management company is seeking to add another runway, as is the rival company in London running Gatwick Airport.

In the United States, by contrast, airports are still typically run by politicians in conjunction with the locally dominant airlines, which help finance the terminals in return for long-term leases on the gates and other facilities. Keeping costs down and customers happy are not the highest priorities. The airlines use their control of the gates and landing slots to keep out competitors so that they can charge higher fares; the politicians use their share of the revenue to reward supporters, especially the unionized airport workers who contribute to their campaigns.

The unions and airlines, aided by lots of Democrats and a few Republicans in Congress, have put up barriers to privatization, but these could be eliminated if the Trump administration follows through with its promises to improve infrastructure. Trump could also help his hometown airports, which are horribly managed even by American standards, if he presses Congress to remove a federal exemption allowing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to divert revenue from JFK, La Guardia and Newark to its pet projects, like the PATH heavy-rail transit system for New Jersey commuters.

The best hope for those airports, and for the rest of New York, would be to heed the new report by Robert Poole for the Manhattan Institute on the Port Authority, the public agency created by Progressives who believed that expert central planners would run everything so much more wisely. The result, as Poole summarizes, has been “mediocre airports, congested and inadequate bridges and tunnels, money-losing seaports, a pathetic bus terminal, and the worst heavy-rail transit system in the nation.” His solution: dismantle the agency and lease its assets to competent managers.

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