A team of aviation experts discuss funding opportunities, challenges and how airports can position themselves for the future.
What is one of the biggest challenges facing the aviation industry today?
Bob: For sure, funding. Getting access to funding remains one of the biggest challenges our airport clients face. Project costs continue to increase but the level of funding at the federal and state levels has remained pretty consistent over years. Coming up with the local match is also an issue for many clients.
Brandon: Yes, one of the biggest obstacles is that funding has remained relatively flat. But, project costs continue to rise year over year. Inflation goes up, the prices of asphalt, concrete and steel goes up. Everything continues to rise but the funding levels have remained relatively flat.
Benita: I think today we’re doing projects much quicker, within shorter timelines. And the costs around projects continue to go up too.
Dan: Since general aviation airport funding is based on entitlements, it’s often necessary for smaller airports to rely on discretionary funding for improvements. It can also be challenging to raise local matching funds for the available Federal and state funding.
Let’s talk about entitlement funding. What are some things airports can do to maximize this type of funding source?
Benita: If an airport doesn’t have enough entitlement dollars in their FAA bank account for a project, there are creative things you can do to get money by borrowing money from other airports.
Kaci: Yes, if Airport A isn’t doing any projects, and Airport B is doing a project but doesn’t have enough money, they can borrow the money from Airport A’s entitlement balance to get the project done. Since airports are limited as to how long they can bank entitlements, it also benefits Airport A as this money can be returned to the airport at a strategic time when they have a larger project scheduled to be completed.
Bob: Right, if airports don’t use these funds within four years, they go back into the national pot. By transferring the money around between different airports in the state, it ensures this money gets used and stays in the state. Some states manage this process, in other states, it’s managed by the airport sponsors and we help facilitate that effort.
Benita: Right. Different states handle the transfers differently. In Minnesota, the airports or their consultants negotiate all of that amongst themselves. In South Dakota, the State DOT does all the transfers, the airports have less influence and ability to strategize where the money goes, but they also don't have to do the work. In Iowa, the DOT and FAA facilitate the process and decide which airport and which projects should receive the funds. There are pros and cons to each but each state does it differently.
Can you explain how technology can benefit aviation clients?
Brandon: Drones have made the surveying aspect of airport projects so much more efficient. You get a new level of understanding about the project that you didn’t have before. Instead of renting a helicopter or aircraft to survey an approach, one person with a drone can identify any objects in the way and adjustments can be made. They help save both time and money.
Bob: Drones can also help with the inspection and documentation aspect of projects too. Drones have been a valuable resource in construction observation in many of our projects.
Brandon: We can provide airports with a different vision of how their project will look when completed. The drone can map out precise coordinates and produce a video where you can overlay exactly what a project will look like. We’re able to see things from a new perspective with the drone technology.
How can airports stay on top of the constantly changing regulations?
Shawn: Regulations are constantly changing. We are constantly watching what the changes are and how they're impacting our clients.
Melissa: Our world revolves around regulations, and our clients look to us to know what's going on because they might not have the time to stay up on all of the federal regulations. But, the funding that they get depends on being in compliance with the regulations. That's one of SEH’s key roles.
Kaci: It's not just the FAA regulations that we have to stay on top of, we also have to understand the regulations happening on the environmental side. The environmental group within SEH helps us keep track of regulations by the Army Corp of Engineers, the DNR, water conservation districts and others.
Shawn: We take a holistic approach to all of our projects. It's not that we do planning and then the planner hands it off to the engineer, and then the engineer does the engineering. We're constantly doing the planning, the environmental, and the design collectively so that we're making sure that what we're designing can be built, and it's built to the criteria established in the environmental document.
Dan: One of the best things to do is to perform additional research during the scoping phase of the project. This can help get an idea of how involved the process will be.
Bob: Throughout that whole process we're keeping in contact with the FAA and the DOTs to make sure that funding is set up, regulations are being followed and that all of the stakeholders are involved and being brought along in the process.
How can community engagement efforts help airport projects?
Kaci: Tailored, proactive community and stakeholder engagement efforts are critical to the success of projects. We ensure we identify the right stakeholders and involve them from the beginning rather than just having a project open house. We also create materials that are engaging, understandable, and meaningful to stakeholders and the general public.
Lindsay: In the past, public involvement meant having an open house at the end of the project. But today, we’re going to the stakeholders’ meetings, we’re meeting people where they are, and we’re involving them from the beginning. That way, the project can be something everyone stands behind.
Melissa: There’s also funding available for public outreach. The FAA supports those efforts and many times offers financial support for them. They want to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. They really want to know what’s going on in a community and give the community an opportunity to influence projects.
The aviation industry is complex. Airport projects involve a number of stakeholders, funding sources and project delivery methods. It’s important to understand how all of these critical elements are intertwined when coming up with the best outcome for each community.