Trump administration mulls sale of Dulles, Reagan airports

Key Points
  • The Trump administration is considering selling the airports under its infrastructure plan.
  • The airports are federally owned, a rarity in the U.S.
  • The idea comes as passenger traffic is breaking records worldwide.
Passengers at Washington Dulles International Airport.
Getty Images

Do you find 13,000 acres of prime real estate in the Washington, D.C., area, complete with a Burberry shop and Starbucks cafes, appealing?

Such a for-sale advertisement for two of Washington, D.C.'s main area airports may pop up soon. The Trump administration on Monday said it is considering selling Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan International Airport along with other federally owned infrastructure.

"Federal ownership of these assets can result in sub-optimal investment decisions and create risk for taxpayers," said the Trump administration's infrastructure proposal. "To utilize this authority, an agency would delineate how proceeds would be spent and identify appropriate conditions under which sales would be made."

The airports are among pieces of infrastructure "that would be more appropriately owned by State, local, or private entities," the administration said.

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Most U.S. airports are publicly owned by local governments, but the federal government owns Dulles and Reagan airports. In Europe, on the other hand, many airports are fully private, particularly in the U.K. and Portugal, according to data from consulting firm ICF.

"I think of privatization as having two potential objectives: one is to monetize an existing asset, or more colloquially: cash out," said Samuel Engel, head of the aviation practice at ICF. "The other is to tap the capital markets to build and invest in infrastructure."

While outright private ownership of airports is rare, millions of flyers in the United States have experienced a structure where private companies, including airlines, operate terminals.

As airports are airlines' lifeblood, carriers often have to agree to major changes in airport ownership structure, Engel said. "The airlines are not likely to support a deal that would result in higher charges."

It's too early to tell who would step forward as buyers for Dulles and Reagan airports. But another selling point is record passenger traffic worldwide. Each of these airports handled more than 21 million passengers in 2016, according to Airports Council International, an industry group.

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