AAAE - Facing the Financial Music

June 12, 2006
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and her top airport official, interim airport division head Kate Lang, set the tone at this year’s annual AAAE convention, calling for industry to closely examine how the system is funded, and how that money is spent.

SAN DIEGO — FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and her top airport official, interim airport division head Kate Lang, set the tone at this year’s annual AAAE convention, calling for industry to closely examine how the system is funded, and how that money is spent. Says Lang, question everything. At the same time, in an uncertain airline world, a renewed focus on planning is occurring among those who direct U.S. airports.

The goal from the FAA’s perspective, says Administrator Blakey, is a “robust” Airport Improvement Program; that said, the Administration is still pushing for cuts of more than $700 million in the AIP appropriation — at $2.75 billion — for FY2007, which begins October 1. According to Blakey, the agency expects to be able to “support” most important AIP projects, though at the expense of entitlements, which will be cut in half, and the loss of general aviation airport entitlements, a concern for many in attendance here.

Blakey says that the Administration’s proposed cuts do not reflect the importance it puts on improving airport infrastructure; rather, it is a reality of challenging budgetary times in Washington.

The central theme of Blakey’s speech here, as it has been for some time, is the Administrator’s call for a new formula for funding the system — AIP, the FAA, and air traffic control. The agency’s costs continue to rise, says Blakey, at a time when, she maintains, the formula for funding the Aviation Trust Fund is proving inadequate.

The agency has developed a new funding formula which it has forwarded to the Office of Management and Budget for review. Blakey was uncertain as to when the plan will be released for comment. However, many in industry say they anticipate that FAA’s proposal will look similar to one released in March by the Air Transport Association. ATA’s proposal is more time-in-system based and seeks to garner more dollars from the business aviation segment, while placing an emphasis on modernizing the ATC system.

Deputy Administrator Lang, meanwhile, challenges industry to make specific recommendations on how money FAA has should be spent, and to identify which programs should take priority.

Questions with New Jets

More questions than answers were raised during a session discussing the impact of very light jets. Edward Faberman, partner with Wiley, Rein & Fielding, says the exact number of VLJs that will be flying is not as critical as the fact that “we need a system that can handle it,” because the aircraft will put some pressure on air traffic control, already sorely in need of updates.

Faberman says that the Depart-ment of Homeland Security is very interested in the VLJ — it’s expected the aircraft will go into smaller airports that might not have the “necessary security.” He predicts that in time Transportation Security Administration officials will be found at each airport. Dennis Rouleau, manager of Chicago’s Palwaukee Municipal Airport, cautions that the industry may see the 12,500-lb. security rule reduced to 10,000 pounds.

While people using these aircraft are going to want to utilize the closest airport to their destination, Faberman says some will be willing to go to secondary airports because of the cost of operating at larger ones. Rouleau agrees that price and convenience will both be factors that play into a VLJ operator’s decision of which airport to use.

Other questions and concerns raised by attendees during the session include:

  • How will the air taxi business model work? Payload on these aircraft is minimal.

  • How does a pilot get trained to fly the VLJ? Who will insure them?

  • ‘Remain overnight’ facilities will need to be planned for smaller airports for charter operations; there will need to be two pilots.

  • Will the charter companies that use VLJs be profitable? How long that takes could dictate how quickly facilities need to be built.

  • VLJs have been marketed for their low cost of operation — how will rising fuel prices affect this?

Registered Traveler Pilot

TSA’s Ted Sobel says the agency does not see the Registered Traveler Program as a government program. “We see us as providing security, but the private sector filling the need.”

According to Sobel, TSA sees the role of the airports in a registered traveler program as partners in development and procurement; partners in compliance with standards of the program; and, as a source for new ideas.

He identifies three parameters in the establishment of a registered traveler program: it must maintain a certain level of security; there can be no incremental cost to TSA; and, it should not put non-registered traveler airports at a disadvantage.

Over the next few months, he says, TSA will select 10-20 airports to participate in a pilot for a registered traveler type-program — the new pilot RT-20. “We expect these pilots to morph into a national program,” he says. Meanwhile, TSA is working in parallel to set up a rule for the program. The goal of the rule, he says, will be to ensure the most public participation.

The application process to participate in the RT-20 program had not been written at the time of Sobel’s presentation. TSA is working with security operations within the agency to get it written and out to airports. Sobel expects that airports for the pilot will be approved and announced on a “rolling basis,” he explains. “Expect to see the selection done in groups — but again, nothing has been finalized. That’s just my expectation.” Sobel can be contacted at [email protected].