It’s the one opinion that Donald Trump and his opponents seem to share: America’s airports are so bad, it’s like “they’re from a Third World country,” as Trump said in the first debate. Vice President Joe Biden used the same phrase to describe New York’s LaGuardia two years ago. Much of the flying public seems to roughly agree. The sentiment is understandable if you’ve recently transited through a gleaming airport in Singapore, Dubai or Kuala Lumpur. Where LaGuardia has low-end souvenir shops, grim food courts and cramped concourses, these airports have butterfly gardens, jungle trails and sound-proofed, WiFi-enabled snooze cubes. It makes you wonder why the world’s biggest economy can’t keep pace.
One obvious reason is that American infrastructure is chronically underfunded. McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, estimated that the U.S. needs to spend about $125 billion more a year simply to maintain its infrastructure at current levels, let alone make improvements. Airports have been no exception to this trend: Even as air travel has surged, capital spending on aviation infrastructure has actually declined, from $21 billion in 2004 to $13 billion in 2014.