What’s a billion here or there?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — If you live the average life span, from the moment you are born until your death your heart will beat a little more than 2 billion times. Many years ago when I worked for a newspaper, I drew a caricature of one of the columnists. He liked it and used it to illustrate his column six days a week. With the newspaper’s circulation of 150,000 a day, it would have required more than 24 years for that little drawing to be printed 1 billion times, had he continued writing that long.

The point of these two bits of useless information is to establish how big a billion of anything is — and to relate this to the political struggles over funding the FAA, where the proposed 2006 budget is $13.8 billion.

The President’s budget for the FAA includes:

- $8 billion for operations;

- $2.4 billion for facilities and equipment; and

- $3 billion for airport aid.

Of course, there’s no assurance that those sums will be what the FAA ends up with when Congress gets through with the budget.

A May 12 report from the Management Advisory Council declared the FAA’s operations budget has been squeezed so much that in the 2004 budget year the FAA had funds to fill only 13 controller positions out of 770 who left the job, for a net loss of 757 controllers. This year, the FAA can only hope to fill 435 positions out of an anticipated 686 departures, for an additional loss of at least 251 controllers.

FAA’s Facilities and Equipment (F&E) budget — earmarked for the modernization of the ATC system, as well as to improve capacity and efficiency — has been underfunded and seems to be heading that way in the 2006 budget, according to the report. The President is seeking a 20% reduction in the F&E budget. About $2 billion a year is needed in F&E to replace worn-out equipment and operate the system just as it is without growth. Taking the current year as an example, $2.99 billion was authorized for F&E, but only $2.52 billion was requested and appropriated. This is a reduction of 16%, but a drastic cut of 47% — that portion over $2 billion — that can be spent for expansion and efficiency. The FY 06 budget is calling for even more severe cuts. The amounts requested for the 2006 budget will — if appropriated — cut funds for modernization by 57%.

Through all of this, there are reports of how the FAA is far, far over budget on projects. As expected, all this is increasing the volume on Chicken Little’s warning that “”the sky is falling, the sky is falling.”"

But is the sky really falling? Is there a danger that airports and the system will fall into disrepair? Will safety be compromised?

Politicians have always known that to get what they want, first create a major problem and then the public will accept your solution for that problem.

When airlines began operating heavy jet aircraft, airports needed thicker, longer runways and new terminal facilities. Air traffic control suffered delays. These problems were blown into major “”the sky is falling”" worries by some in government and in industry. A solution was accepted and the Airport and Airways Trust Fund came into being. Because money in it can be spent only for aviation, the more of FAA’s expenses that can be paid from it leaves less to be paid from general funds. About 80% of FAA costs are paid from the trust fund. If the remaining 20% could also be included, it would free up more than $3 billion of general revenues for other things. The administration, some members of Congress, the airlines, and a few others, such as the media and think tanks, want to get more money into the trust fund and to gain advantages in operations in the system. A problem is being created and a solution will be accepted. Is there really a problem with the trust fund? Some say yes, others no.

Either way, one place to look for the funds might be in Congress. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, pork barrel projects this year amounted to $27.3 billion, twice the entire FAA budget.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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