Friday, March 23, 2012

Who controls airports?

I was recently thinking about a previous post I wrote, all about the improvements that airports could make in order to simplify flying and make it more comfortable for passengers.  Certainly some of these ideas would require spending money, which got me thinking, how do airports even make their money?  And who is ultimately in charge of airports' business practices?

So I did a little research that I wanted to share.  In the US (sorry non-American readers.  It's late in the afternoon as I write this and I am getting too distracted to research other countries), commercial airports are technically publicly-owned, and their initial construction and launch is paid for publicly.  The airport owns all of its facilities, and makes revenue by charging airlines for their use, as well as all those lovely (and stupidly overpriced) retail shops inside.  Airports also charge for services -- "like fuel and parking and through fees and taxes on airline tickets."  So once an airport is off the ground (so to speak), it is responsible for sustaining itself.

Which all made me feel a little bad about some of my gripes, such as wanting lower prices in shops and fewer self-serve ticketing kiosks (which would require hiring more humans).  These wishes would require extra money, and if an airport is self-sustaining, it will come up with that cash through methods like charging airlines more for use or fuel -- which would translate into a more expensive ticket, a price that the passenger ultimately pays.

This is especially difficult when airlines have to constantly adapt to keep up with ever-changing governmental regulations and safety standards.  Providing more training for staff, installing high-tech screening equipment (that is friggin' useless), hiring more personnel, maintaining facilities, and all the other day-to-day maintenance that airports have to do is expensive, especially given that in many countries, airports are held to incredibly high safety and sanitation standards (not all.  I'm looking at you, Varanasi -- and the baggage handler who sort of hilariously burned my bag with a cigarette).

Airports are also real estate ventures, taking up lots of space in valuable areas, often in already bustling cities and towns.  The fees they charge airlines for everything they do within that space is essentially rent, making the airport essentially a landlord... and since its public, that essentially makes us locals the landlord.  Funny, ain't it?

So while I totally understand that airports can be in a tight bind when it comes to providing more costly service, I don't feel guilty at all about loudly calling for it.  Because at the end of the day, I am part of the ownership of my local airport -- hey there, Logan International!.

The problem is in finding ways to provide quality services that DON'T eventually put the cost on the passenger, because in this case the passengers are both the "owners" of the airport, and also its source of revenue - it's an awkward relationship, and I am wondering if there is a way to restructure this model so that added costs don't end up being passed off to the consumer - whether it is higher prices for plane tickets, or higher prices for food, there always seems to be a way to slide those costs onto us.

(And on a related note, I am also technically the employer of my delightfully complex American government, so when TSA agents are told to do something stupid (read: groping randos), I will also happily shout from the rooftops that it is wrong.)

(image via under Creative Commons)

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