CHICAGO -- Airport financing may be in for an overhaul.
Officials at the Federal Aviation Administration and the Government Accounting Office are studying ways to enhance the ability of airports to raise money for their capital needs.
Some of the ideas they are beginning to float would radically change airport financing.
Donna Taylor, manager of the passenger facility charge branch of the FAA, said the agency was directed last August by Congress to explore innovative ways in which federal funds could be used to "get more of the critically needed airport development financed."
While the FAA has until August to report to Congress, the agency has already prepared some proposed concepts that it plans to publish in the Federal Register by yearend.
An Oct. 24 draft report includes the following concepts:
* Using Airport Improvement Program grant funds as enhancement for bond issues, such as to fund a debt service reserve.
* Allowing private, for-profit investment in airports.
* Creating a revolving loan fund for airports similar to one established by the Environmental Protection Agency for local water projects. Under the plan, the loan fund could be expanded by the issuance of bonds by the FAA that would be paid off with loan repayment revenues and secured with the unobligated balance of the aviation trust fund or the general obligation pledge of the U.S. government.
* Developing a loan guarantee program that would provide security for airport bond issues from the U.S. government in order to lower the cost of borrowing for airports.
* Allowing airport grant funds to be used to purchase credit enhancement for bond issues or allowing the FAA to provide its own insurance for a fee.
* Developing a U.S. government-backed pooled bond program for airports that would be similar to existing programs for financing housing. Bonds issued under this scenario would probably be taxable.
Taylor said she hopes to convene meetings with industry representatives after Jan. 1 to discuss these and other concepts.
Meanwhile, the Government Accounting Office was asked by Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., chairman of the aviation subcommittee, to also examine airport financing. Dana Greenberg, a senior evaluator at the GAO, said the office has been working jointly with the FAA on some aspects of the project. The GAO is shooting for a deadline that would coincide with the next reauthorization of the FAA in 1996.
Airport industry participantS are generally open-minded about the efforts of the FAA and GAO, particularly in the face of shrinking grants to airports through the Airport Improvement Program.
"I think what a lot of people believe is that there is a particular need for innovative financing to offset the effects of a smaller [Airport Improvement Program] pot," said Lynn Goldschmidt, an attorney at Hopkins & Sutter.
Airports Council International, an airport trade group, has pointed out that funding from the program has fallen from $1.9 billion in 1992 to $1.7 billion this year.
Rob Wigington, a senior vice president with the group, pegged funding needs at $10 billion a year.
Rating agency officials, meanwhile, welcomed the involvement of the federal agencies in trying to find new ways to pay for airport projects.
Adam Whiteman, a vice president at Moody's Investors Service, said it is "refreshing to have the [Clinton] Administration and the FAA actively involved in evaluating their roles in airport financing."
"It's something not seen in past administrations and that's a major thing," he said.
Whiteman also said that while some of the FAA's proposed concepts are "interesting," he has yet to see details on how they would work.
Ernie Perez, a director at Standard & Poor's Corp., said the concepts in general "are a good idea." He said, for example, that using airport grant funds to fund debt service reserves would free up money that airports can use for their capital projects.
"I'm happy to see them trying to look at other ways [of financing] given how the airline industry is," Perez said.
A key unknown in the efforts to shake up airport financing is how the new Republican majority elected to Congress on Nov. 8 will view the project. Greenberg at the GAO said the change to Republican leadership could also change the office's mandate in this matter.
"It's hard to know what the agenda will be," she said.
Congressional watchers have pegged Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as the likely chairman of the aviation subcommittee in the next Congress, while the replacement for Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., as head of the House subcommittee is up in the air.