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Benjamin Spillman

Airports facing rising costs see no relief ahead

4 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- America's airports shouldn't look to Congress for help solving air travel problems that could cost billions of dollars to fix, at least not this year.

That was the message Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., sent a group of airport officials meeting this week in Las Vegas.

The private event was part of a conference for the trade group Airports Council International, an organization chaired by Clark County Director of Aviation Randy Walker.

"I'm afraid I haven't got many solutions to the issues that are facing us," Berkley told the audience in a conference room Monday at The Westin. "The issue is a lack of funding from the federal government."

Among the problems facing officials at Las Vegas International Airport and others across the country are the expected fallout of new passenger identification requirements, a perceived shortage of federal airport security workers and costs associated with upgrading baggage screening hardware.

'Berkley said the impending presidential election, summer vacation and the transition to a new administration in January make it unlikely Congress will approve much in the way of major legislation, transportation-related or otherwise.

"I'm not sure the issues affecting aviation ... are going to be addressed in the next year," she said. "That is my gut feeling."

She said the budget President Bush submitted to Congress had a $410 billion deficit in its first year and a $418 billion shortfall in its second.

That makes it difficult to fund proposals to increase the number of workers in the Transportation Security Administration, to upgrade baggage screening procedures and other improvements, she said.

Walker said that in many ways air travel is as efficient as ever, citing the ease at which passengers can board at airports in small towns for short hops to larger airports and destinations around the globe.

But that also means shortages or chaos at one airport can spread problems throughout the network.

"This interconnected system is wonderful, but it requires diligence on safety and security," Walker said. "Our protective chain is only as strong as its weakest link."

He also characterized funding for upgraded baggage screening as an investment that would save the government in the long-term by cutting down on the number of workers needed to do the job.

"All of the savings are manpower savings to the TSA, yet they seem hesitant to invest in the technology," Walker said.

Both Berkley and Walker anticipate compliance with a federal law that requires states to add uniform elements to driver's licenses will be a strain for the network.

The changes, imposed by the Real ID Act of 2005, call on states to include security features on driver's licenses that would, in theory, make it harder for terrorists or identity thieves to pass off bogus identification.

People who live in states that don't comply with the mandate could see their driver's licenses rejected as a form of identification for boarding a plane or entering a federal building.

"This plan could present some severe complications," Walker said.

Berkley is one of 32 co-sponsors of a bill that would repeal the Real ID Act, but so far the legislation is stalled.

In the meantime, many states, including Nevada, have applied for and been granted extensions to the original compliance deadline in May.

Currently, Nevada has until Dec. 31, 2009, to begin producing the advanced licenses, said Berkley spokesman David Cherry.

There will be deadlines for residents to acquire the new licenses by 2014 or 2017, depending on their age, Cherry said.

The requirements come at a bad time for Nevada, which is struggling to pay its bills thanks to a real estate slump that's sapping energy from the economy and cash from tax collections.

"We are having a hard time trying to find money to pay for anything right now," Cherry said.