U.S. Airports No Longer Have to Build Their Own Terrible Trains

The byzantine bureaucratic rule that made useful airport connections to mass transit difficult is finally gone. Its legacy will live on in our crappy trains.
February 18, 2021, 2:00pm
AirTrain people mover
Bruce Bennett / Getty

On January 12, a time when most of us were distracted by other events pertaining to the federal government, the Federal Aviation Administration updated some rules that will have huge implications for how travelers access airports via public transportation, and even for public transportation systems as a whole. It is also a correction for one of my pet peeves about U.S. public transportation, that we have spent decades building trains-to-the-trains to the airport. This unique type of U.S. transportation has no commonly-recognized name, and I will soon arbitrarily assign a term for them just to make everything easier. 

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They do not have a name because they make no sense and have no good reason to exist.  The train itself should just go to the airport, like they do in virtually every other airport with a mass transit connection in the world. These useless trains only exist because of byzantine bureaucratic rule that has condemned U.S. travelers to this crappy extra train for no good reason. And it's finally, finally, finally fixed. 

To fully understand what's going on here, let's back up and talk about airport transportation. Most large international airports anywhere in the world have some type of "people mover" system, which can be anything from those weird and amazing mobile lounges at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. to the automated trains more commonly found at airports these days (including also at Dulles). Airports have these when they are very large with terminals very far apart and even those moving walkways you are supposed to walk on and not just stand there for fuck's sake MOVE are not enough to get people around efficiently. 

Generally speaking, there are two types of airport people movers. The first and most common from a global perspective are those designed to get people between terminals at massive international airports. The second and most common in the U.S. but virtually non-existent elsewhere are those that not only connect terminals but also the airport to rental car hubs and mass transportation. These second types, which I will continue to refer to as people movers for convenience, are frustrating as hell, as it requires travelers—to mention airport employees—to take a train to the train, an unnecessary and expensive transfer that typically requires a second fare.

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So: why? Why this extra train? It's because of this weird FAA rule.

In 1990, Congress passed the Aviation Safety and Capacity Expansion Act of 1990 which allowed airports, with the FAA's permission, to charge a small Passenger Facility Fee (PFC)—initially a maximum of $3 per ticket, later upped to $4.50 and, like the federal gas tax, not increased in the 20 years since despite losing much of its value to inflation—for airport improvements. The statute allows the revenue to be used for specific types of internal airport improvements only, such as people movers that stay within airport grounds. And in 2004 the FAA clarified that only rail lines which exclusively serve airports are eligible for  PFCs.

In the United States, getting funding for mass transit projects is hard enough as it is, so PFCs offered airports and the cities they're in a workaround to creating mass transit connections, if not a direct link to city centers. As long as airports built their own, separate rail line that operated mostly inside airport territory—or, in theory, built a mass transit expansion with no intermediate stops that terminated at the airport—they could use airline ticket surcharges to pay for, at the very least, a good chunk of the project. This is why city governments in particular tend to love these trains to the trains, because it takes most of the funding load off their backs and they get to brag about having a mass transit connection to their airport.

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But, as anyone who has ever used a people mover knows, they're an expensive half-measure that doesn't provide a true one-seat ride to the airport. The transfers can be a pain with luggage and add at least ten minutes to each leg of the journey, often more, when factoring in long walks through transfer stations. Plus, if you're traveling with others, the odds are the extra cost of the double fare for multiple people will start to get price competitive with taking a taxi or Uber, defeating the whole purpose of the people mover to begin with. These are not life-changing inconveniences, but they undermine the point of a mass transit connection to airports and reinforce the notion that the U.S. sucks at building useful public transit.

"The convoluted structure of not having a one seat ride is driven pretty much by the way the regulations are structured," then-Airports Council International general counsel Tom Devine told me last year (he has since retired). The intent, he said, was to prevent cities from passing mass transit expansion costs onto airport users. 

"The rationale is they don't want the airport to be in essence paying for a commuter rail system that goes downtown where maybe there's 10 percent airport use and 90 percent use of commuters getting from the suburbs to downtown but the airport pays 100 percent." Devine explained. "So it was a crude way, I think, of limiting what Congress thought might be potential abuses."

Of course, there have always been possible compromises that allow mass transit systems to build, say, a light rail extension to the airport with intermediate stops and have PFCs cover a portion of the total cost, as the FAA first proposed in 2016. But airlines have consistently opposed such changes because, in the words of Delta Air Lines' comment on the proposed change, "Airport transit connections do not produce the same level of benefits compared to airside projects, nor is there as direct a connection between the benefits and those who pay the PFC." (Ironically, Delta's headquarters and main hub is in Atlanta, one of the few cities in the U.S. with a convenient mass transit station at the airport itself thanks to a MARTA expansion and new airport terminal in the 1980s.) 

These arguments stem from the euphemism that the PFC is a "user fee" and not a tax, a distinction quite literally without a difference since they are both grouped under the "taxes and fees" line item of your flight cost (next to the PFC on your receipt are "congressionally mandated security fees" which pay for the Transportation Security Administration and is my all-time favorite euphemism for a tax). A "user fee," the logic goes, must rigorously benefit the payee while a general tax can more readily be used for the common good. From the airlines' perspective, using PFCs to pay for a mass transit connection is more like a tax and therefore an illegitimate use. It is all unbearably silly. 

And so things would have gone probably forever, but for the Silver Line in D.C. In the FAA's own backyard, a planned D.C. Metro expansion called the Silver Line through northern Virginia planned to add a stop at Dulles Airport on its way through northern Virginia. Under the old PFC rules, Metro couldn't use PFCs because the airport stop was one of many along the Silver Line's route, even though a direct rail link from downtown D.C. to the far-flung airport that still relied on bus connections from Metro stops was undeniably a massive improvement for airport users. 

Which (finally) brings us to the rule change issued a month ago. Under the new rule, expansions like the Silver Line would now be eligible for PFCs, typically by estimating what percentage of ridership would use the airport stop and prorating costs accordingly. Cities no longer have to choose between building a semi-useful airport connection solely for airport users or a truly useful mass transit expansion that would be much more difficult to pay for. It can now have both, the way it should have been all along.