OF Funding, ATC, and Veto Threats

Sept. 19, 2007
As this year’s airport legislative conference attests, there’s a lot on the legislative table.

WASHINGTON — Well, there is funding, be it user fees, ATC upgrades, FAA operations, passenger facility charges, or security. This year’s annual ACI-NA/AAAE Summer Legislative Issues Conference, held just before Congress recessed for August, also discussed that other hot topic du jour, employee screening, along with 9/11 legislation, streamlining, and the NATCA rollback provision, among other reauthorization hot buttons. Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), a member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told attendees in a video, “This time we’re going to have a fair bill, or no bill.” It is the latter that many find cause for concern. On day two, the conference heard directly from U.S. House
members and staffers, who tried to convey optimism.

The summer legislative conference is hosted jointly each year by the Airports Council International-North America and the American Association of Airport Executives.

This year’s plate was full of aviation reauthorization, which must be accomplished by Congress and signed by the President before September 30. Else, the industry suffers through a potential series of continuing resolutions which maintain the status quo, with a significant measure of uncertainty tossed in. At the very least, for this audience, the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration to properly plan and manage its Airport Improvement Funding program virtually comes to a standstill.

Comments Kate Lang, deputy associate administrator for airports at FAA, “If we get four-month extensions, we won’t be issuing grants. We just won’t.”

Current signs are good that AIP will see increases, once a bill is passed, with both Houses offering increases approaching $4 billion a year. FY08 is expected to have a funding level around $3.5 billion, some $700,000 less than the Administration’s proposal, a cause for concern at a time when the President has threatened to veto various budget increases. “There’s a little bit of playing with fire going on,” comments Peter Rogoff, majority clerk for the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, HUD and Related Agencies.

The veto threat by President Bush is of particular concern due to the NATCA provision in the House bill, which calls for FAA to reenter contract talks to rewrite the hard-hitting agreement that Administrator Marion Blakey is perceived to have forced on the controllers union. Holly Woodruff-Lyons, Republican staff director for the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation, cautions that this provision alone could tie up reauthorization, if ultimately approved by both Houses.

PFCS — ‘pop the top off’
The airport groups have pretty much stayed out of the user fee debate and who pays for what in terms of use of the system. They seek only predicatable, stable funding mechanisms. The funding aspect that is their mission, however, is passenger facility charges — raising the cap from the current $4.50 and lifting the FAA oversight mandated by Congress. On the former, the House is proposing to lift the cap to $7; the Senate calls for no increase, but instead for a pilot program that would allow participating airports to set their own limits.

Of particular disappointment, says FAA’s Lang, is the refusal by either House to consider streamling proposals for the program. Airports and FAA agree that the oversight of the program mandated by Congress is unnecessary for a program that has reached a level of maturity.

Says Lang, “We wanted to pop the top off” of what can be done by airports with PFCs, pointing out that such a move would be viewed positively by Wall Street. “Why do we make PFC accounting so difficult?

Lang notes that the PFC regulations in place today were mandated in the early 1990s, when it was assumed that there would be “trench warfare” between airlines and airports over their implementation.

Employee screening, environmental, etc.
Among the other issues discussed at this year’s legislative conference:

  • Employee Screening. H.R.1413 establishes a pilot program at several airports to physically screen all workers who have access to security and sterile areas.
    Todd Hauptli, AAAE’s senior executive vice president for legislative affairs, says there is pressure building on the Hill for more stringent screening at U.S. airports.
  • Environmental. Carl Burleson, director, Office of Environment and Energy at FAA, says that the Administration’s proposed NextGen upgrade of air traffic control will also have a significant impact on emissions and fuel burn. NextGen, he says, “provides environmental protection that allows for sustained aviation growth.” He says that the reduced separation minimums for aircraft that will be capable with NextGen could alone save up to 500,000 gallons for fuel for the airlines annually.

FAA is also involved in its Continuous Low Energy, Emissions, and Noise (CLEEN) Consortium with NASA and others that seeks to demonstrate aircraft and engine technologies that reduce noise and local air quality and greenhouse gas emissions at the source.

Burleson acknowledges that the European Union is driving much of the environmental discussion globally. “There is a split between the European Union and the rest of the world,” he comments. “We haven’t signed a treaty that says the EU is in charge.”

He adds that Congress may add some $5 million to the Airport Cooperative Research Program to focus on environmental research.

  • NextGen. Daniel Elwell, assistant administrator for Aviation Policy, Planning and Environment at FAA, says that transforming the U.S. air traffic control system via NextGen is “the single biggest motivating factor for the FAA proposal.

“NextGen is the singular goal of FAA,” he says.

Congress, meanwhile, is proposing a $25 per flight fee for instrument flights to pay for NextGen, a proposal that is getting resistance from general aviation groups.

  • Security. The so-called 9/11 Commission legislation (H.R. 1413), since passed, calls for 100 percent cargo screening for cargo on passenger airliners within three years. Chris Battle, vice president and director of Homeland Security practice for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, calls the notion of achieving the goal of 100 percent screening in that timeframe “unfeasible.” The technology, he says, isn’t there yet.
    Perhaps the best news for airports from the 9/11 legislation, says AAAE’s Hauptli, is that it establishes a Letter of Intent (LOI) program by which the Transportation Security Administration will back the installation of explosives detection systems.