FAA chief campaigns for funding

Washington --- For months, the nation's top airline regulator has been urging Congress to approve funding for a massive upgrade of the air transportation system.

Now Marion Blakey, who heads the Federal Aviation Administration, is just two weeks away from finishing her five-year term. And she is fuming as she waits for Congress to act before the legislation that authorizes the FAA's operations expires Sept. 30.

"It's not as though it sneaked up on anybody," she said.

In a Wednesday meeting with reporters, Blakey said that if Congress fails to quickly approve a new four-year FAA authorization bill after returning from its August recess, it is risking a massive disruption to air transportation.

"There really will not be money" to continue operating the air traffic control system once the last dollars in the aviation trust fund are spent down by November, she said.

Blakey argues that Congress should change the formula of fees and taxes that pay for air traffic control services and airport infrastructure because FAA data show it currently weighs too heavily on commercial airlines.

Big carriers agree that air passengers pay far out of proportion to the costs they impose. Blakey says corporate jets and other private aircraft should be charged user fees to more fairly distribute the burden.

A bipartisan Senate bill, passed by the Commerce Committee, would impose a $25 fee on each flight, regardless of the aircraft's size. In contrast, a House bill, passed by the Transportation Committee, would increase fuel taxes.

But in both the Senate and House, the committees with jurisdiction over taxes have not yet signed off on the bills. Final floor votes are at least several weeks away, even under the most optimistic scenarios.

Blakey said the debate has turned into "a huge food fight" because people involved with general aviation --- flights not involved in scheduled airline or military operations --- are lobbying intensely to block user fees. They have "taken this up like religion," she said.

Blakey said Congress would only deepen the funding crisis if it were to pass stopgap measures to continue operating for a few months, as some have suggested as a way of delaying decisions about more excise taxes or new user fees.

"It is better to keep the pressure on" to make choices this fall, before lawmakers turn their attention more fully to their 2008 re-election bids, she said.

The FAA is expected to award a contract today worth more than $1 billion to begin building the key components of the "next-generation" air traffic control system --- a satellite-based technology intended to increase safety and alleviate flight delays.

Blakey said the new system, which will cost at least $15 billion before being fully implemented in 2020, is needed to keep pace with air travel growth.

Until it can be built out, crowded airports will continue to be plagued with delays, as they will be this Labor Day holiday.

"It's fair to say people should brace themselves and bring a good book" if they plan to fly this weekend, she said.

Blakey, whose FAA term ends Sept. 13, has accepted a position to become the chief executive officer of Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group.