The City of St. Louis is exploring the privatization of Lambert International Airport through the federal Airport Pilot Privatization Program (APPP). The APPP allows a limited number of publicly owned and operated airports to exchange the right to operate and manage their facilities (and so, pursue profits) with private firms in return for major up-front cash payments, a share of future revenues, and major capital investments.
Privatizing Lambert could be a win–win–win proposition for St. Louis. The city could get an infusion of cash; private firms could get the opportunity to pursue profits; and the traveling public could get an improved and more efficient airport. But skeptics point out that a limited number of airports have gone through the APPP, implying that privatization is rarely successful, if not unrealistic.
So, is privatization realistic? Why hasn’t it taken off in the US?
The answers: “Absolutely” and “It’s complicated,” respectively.
Privatization is becoming more common abroad. As of 2016, 41% of European airports were partially or fully privatized, and the Canadian National Airport System (comprising Canada’s 26 largest airports) has been successfully operated by the private sector for decades. According to Airports Council International, the private, market-based approach in Europe has led to “significant volumes of investment in necessary infrastructure, higher service quality levels, and a commercial acumen which allows airport operators to diversify revenue streams and minimize the costs that users have to pay” (p. 1). Privatization has also led to greater competition, which has “pushed airports of all sizes to fight for route development and traffic growth, to become leaner and more efficient… and to find the optimal means of financing investments “(ibid). In short, privatization works; in fact, it works really well.
But European and Canadian airports weren’t privatized through the APPP, which might be why privatization has been faster and smoother abroad. While the APPP is promising, it can take years to finish the application process, and time is money. For perspective, Henry County Airglades Airport had its preliminary application approved in 2010 and has yet to receive final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The APPP also imposes restrictions that can make crafting a privatization deal challenging. For instance, a 65% majority of airlines need to approve a lease agreement for privatization to go forward. And if the city wants to use proceeds from the agreement on projects outside the airport, it’ll require that same 65% approval. Moreover, private operators must assume any public debt held for the airport unless the FAA waives the responsibility. On top of all this, the passenger facility charge (PFC) airports levy on travelers is capped at $4.50 by Congress, which limits revenue for private operators. (Read this recent Congressional report on the APPP for a more detailed account of the program and its challenges.)
The question isn’t “Should we privatize?” but “How should we privatize?” The FAA has discussed the benefits of privatization and increased competition for decades, and the APPP gives St. Louis a chance to capitalize on those benefits. And while few airports have been privatized through the APPP (note that most simply withdrew their applications), policymakers can work to craft a deal that works for all involved: the city, the airport, airlines, and the traveling public. Look for more soon on what a privatization deal could include to offer the best outcomes for all parties.