The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.
Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair, Working Group II of the IPCC
The commercial aviation industry accounts for roughly 5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), or $1.25 trillion, in 2022.1 This year, Congress is slated to reauthorize Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding and programs. The FAA bill presents an important opportunity to advance environmental sustainability; improve job quality for thousands of airport service workers; and ensure the efficiency and competitiveness of the U.S. aviation system.
Unfortunately, current FAA funding levels and program structures are not designed to realize these environmental, labor, and economic goals. In fiscal year 2022, the FAA spent $6.4 billion on capital projects, grants to airports, and research.2 The overwhelming majority of these dollars supported basic capital work with only a small share directed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Federal law restricts the fees that airports may charge passengers, preventing capacity-constrained airports from raising the revenues necessary to finance their long-term capital needs. Finally, despite billions in federal support flowing to airports every year, many of the workers that make commercial air travel possible lack adequate pay and benefits.
The FAA bill should increase funding for greenhouse gas reduction projects, ensuring the aviation sector can achieve net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury; extend federal pay and benefit standards to airport service workers to support an efficient, well-qualified workforce; and improve system efficiency by allowing airports to raise the revenue necessary to finance major capital projects. The reauthorization should include the following five policies.
- Provide not less than $1 billion annually for research, development, and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). In the 12-month period from December of 2021 to November of 2022, U.S. air carriers providing scheduled commercial service burned 11.4 billion gallons of aviation fuel on domestic flights.3 This is roughly equivalent to 17,273 Olympic swimming pools worth of fuel each year.4 The FAA estimates that, by 2042, domestic enplanements on U.S. commercial air carriers will increase from 645 million to 1.3 billion annually.5 In the absence of additional scientific breakthroughs, demonstration projects, and ultimately scaled production, aviation will contribute a larger and larger share of U.S. climate emissions by midcentury.
- Reform the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) to allow stand-alone climate mitigation, adaptation, and other sustainability projects. Federal grant support for civil airport development dates back to 1946 when President Harry Truman signed the Federal Airport Act. According to the AIP handbook, the program is designed to advance “airport planning, airport development, noise compatibility planning, and noise compatibility projects.”6 Additionally, the handbook states, “A project to improve a building’s energy efficiency is not eligible as a stand-alone project.”7 AIP’s narrow focus on capacity, system efficiency, and noise does not fit with the need to mitigate and adapt to the urgent threat of global climate change. The program should be reformed to not only allow stand-alone climate projects but to prioritize them when scoring projects for discretionary grant awards.
- Establish a performance management framework for airport Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions and water use. Airports are responsible for a large amount of Scope 1 and 2 emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency defines Scope 1 emissions as “direct greenhouse (GHG) emissions that occur from sources that are controlled or owned by an organization (e.g., emissions associated with fuel combustion in boilers, furnaces, vehicles)” and Scope 2 emissions as “indirect GHG emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat, or cooling.” 8 Under the framework, each airport receiving AIP funds with more than 100,000 average annual enplanements would be required to conduct an energy- and water-use audit to establish usage baseline. Each qualifying airport would then need to develop a plan for achieving net-zero Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 along with water use reduction and recycling plans.
- Increase the maximum allowable passenger facility charge (PFC) from $4.50 to $8.00. Under federal law, commercial airports may charge each enplaning passenger a PFC of up to $4.50 with a maximum of two charges for a one-way flight and four charges on a round-trip. Airports may use PFC revenues on “FAA-approved projects that enhance safety, security, or capacity; reduce noise; or increase air carrier competition.”9 Congress last raised the maximum allowable PFC charge in 2000. Since that time inflation has substantially reduced the purchasing power of these dollars, hampering the ability of airports—especially large hub airports—from raising sufficient revenue for their long-term capital needs. The maximum PFC charge should be raised to $8 per flight segment. Additionally, the FAA bill should amend the program to allow PFC revenues to support stand-alone GHG reduction projects.
- Raise pay and benefits for workers in federally supported airports. Airport service workers—including cleaners, wheelchair agents, baggage handlers, ticketing agents, caterers, concessions workers, passenger service agents, and lounge workers—are at a breaking point. Although they have provided essential services throughout the pandemic and are supporting the safe return to normalized travel, these workers are typically paid substandard wages and benefits.10 For example, according to 2015–2019 American Community Survey data, the median earnings for aircraft cleaners are just $13.99 per hour.11 Service workers whose jobs are funded through direct federal contracting have long enjoyed protections to ensure they are paid market wages and benefits. Research shows that these sorts of standards boost earnings and equity in a government supported sectors and support safe and efficient services by reducing turnover and encouraging a well-qualified workforce.12 Congress should incorporate language from the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act into the FAA bill which would extend pay and benefit protections to service workers at commercial airports—which receive billions of dollars in federal funding every year.13
Taken together, these policies will ensure that the U.S. aviation system is efficient and competitive; advance environmental sustainability and keep our global climate commitments; and improve job quality for thousands of airport service workers. Each year, the federal government spends billions of dollars on airport infrastructure and system operations. These five policy reforms will make sure that federal funds yield the greatest economic, environmental, and social benefits in the years to come.
Kevin DeGood is the director of infrastructure policy at American Progress. Karla Walter is the senior director for employment policy at American Progress.