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ASCE gave the nation’s airports a grade of D+ in 2021, up from a D in 2017. ASCE estimates that $11.1 billion more per year is needed to bring airports up to a B.

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $2.5 billion in new federal airports funding per year, covering 23% of the ASCE-estimated new funding need and representing a 66% increase in federal funding. At $3.2 billion, the Senate Republican plan actually calls for more. The Senate Republican plan is 29% of the additional funding need estimated by ASCE and an 84% increase in current federal funding. The Common Sense Coalition plan that President Biden now supports proposes $5 billion, an investment that would cover 45% of the need and would increase federal funding by 132%. At $1.3 billion, the Problem Solvers propose the smallest airport investment, an investment that would cover 12% of the estimated need and increase federal funding 35%.

The Case for a Big Investment

Air travel, proponents argue, is critical to robust commerce both domestically and internationally. Air travel delays are excessive, they argue, and enormously disruptive for both business and personal travel. We need to invest in greater airport capacity if we are to reduce travel delays.

The Case for a Smaller Investment

Like other forms of transportation, proponents of a smaller increase in airport infrastructure argue that the demand for air travel may see a long-term reduction because of the pandemic. Even more than travel by personal car, rail, or public transit, some argue, the pandemic demonstrated how costly business air travel is. A video conference meeting, they point out, saves significant time and expense and leaves a far smaller carbon footprint. Before investing significantly in increased air travel capacity, they argue, we should first see what demand after the pandemic will be.

The Evidence

ASCE’s 2021 report card cited the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) findings that two core measures of airport infrastructure conditions were nearly unchanged. The “on-time” flights decreased slightly from 80.1% in 2017 to 79.2% in 2019. ASCE suggested that the slight on-time flight decrease was due to growth in passenger travel without a corresponding number of available flights. ASCE acknowledges that the post-pandemic demand picture is unclear. NPIAS also reports that over the same time the percentage of runways in excellent, good, or fair condition increased slightly from 97.8% to 97.9%. Given the significant reduction in flights during the pandemic, the wear and tear on runways has been less since 2019.