Chances Slim that New FAA Funding Plan Will Be in Place on Time

ORLANDO – The odds that a new FAA reauthorization measure will be signed into law by Sept. 30 are slim.

The likelihood that the Senate will have passed an FAA measure by the end of the current federal fiscal year is less than 33 percent, notes NATA President James Coyne. He anticipates that the measure will clear the House Aviation committee by the July 4 recess and make it to the floor by September. Coyne gives the measure a 50-50 chance of clearing the House by Sept. 30.

During a session of the FBO Leadership Program during the 2007 Aviation Industry Expo, Coyne said chances are high that the FAA will continue to be funded by a continuing resolution into the next fiscal year. Congress can continue the current set of aviation taxes that fund FAA and the Aviation Trust Fund as part of a continuing resolution. Another option, Coyne notes, is that the taxes could be allowed to expire and the balance of the trust fund could be allowed to “bleed away” as part of a strategy to create pressure for a new set of aviation taxes and user fees. Congress cannot raise these taxes as part of a continuing resolution.

The Bush Administration’s carefully crafted FAA reauthorization measure that seeks to fund a new air traffic control system, dubbed NextGen, by revamping the aviation taxes and user fees is basically dead on arrival in Congress, Coyne notes. The new Democratic Congress has not “embraced it or supported it.” Instead, Congress seems to want to shape its own bill.

The White House a year ago promised to introduce the reauthorization legislation in early 2006 so that there would be plenty of time enact the measure before the current FAA funding law expires on Sept. 30. The transportation department was seeking to avoid the problems it confronted when it took nearly 18 extra months to reauthorize the multi-year highway funding program. It took that much extra time with Congress and the White House both controlled by the same party.

The focus of the FAA funding debate has to date been centered on the intramural fight between the commercial airlines and the general aviation sector as to who should be paying what portion of the tab to modernize the air traffic control system.

DOT and the airlines want to hike the fuel tax paid by general aviation from 20 cents per gallon to 70 cents per gallon. Coyne says the 50 cents per gallon hike could very well kill off the “goose that lays the golden egg” -- just as an excise tax on yacht sales nearly killed that industry 20 years ago.

“Why are the airlines so hostile to general aviation?” Coyne asks. “Here they are trying to make everyone else but the airlines pay. There is no real benefit to take out a vendetta against general aviation.”

Instead of the focus on funding, Coyne says the attention should be directed at getting the FAA to secure the cooperation of 20,000 air traffic controllers. The measure put forth by the administration is a “dishonest proposal” because FAA does not have a plan to replace the bulk of the controllers with technology. Instead, the higher taxes and user fees will not buy new equipment, but will be used to pay out higher wages to the controllers.

“I am a little cynical,” Coyne observes, “I don’t see anyone with the political courage to try to change things.”

NextGen, as proposed by the FAA, would replace the existing 50-year system with a computer-based system linked to satellites. State of the art avionics tied to GPS would allow pilots to select the most efficient flight paths. The new system would only need 2,000 controllers to monitor the computers, Coyne says.

By reducing the workforce to 2,000, the FAA could save $7 billion and not need to raise taxes, he notes.

In the long-term the U.S. air traffic control system will become an “embarrassment” as other nations adopt the state-of-the art technology. Coyne fears that a “terrible accident caused by a controller’s human error” will be the impetus to modernize the system unless someone has political courage.

Unfortunately, the controller’s union is now “playing the safety card” in much the same way police or fire unions do when their economic benefits are threatened, he says.

The more appropriate position, Coyne explains, would be for the controllers to seize the opportunity and negotiate a workforce reduction as Next Gen is phased-in.