Race in on to convince lawmakers about how to fund the FAA

WASHINGTON, D.C. — One thing about Washington politics: It is believed that if something is said often enough, it is going to be believed — that is, unless someone or something also says the opposite often enough.

Take funding of the Federal Aviation Administration for instance.

Like Chicken Little running around screaming that “”the sky is falling,”” the airlines and the FAA administrator have been touting “”a stable and predictable funding system.”” The airlines believe that should include user fees. They also believe they should be running the air traffic control system.

FAA Administrator Marian Blakey again made the pitch for a “”steady revenue source”” to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee as recently as May 3. She told the senators that corporate jets and increased use of smaller regional jets by some airlines produce less revenue per flight. She did not, however, refer to the increased number of passenger tickets sold and taxed. Declaring the need to change the way money goes to the trust fund, Blakey said the purpose of the fee system would be to create “”a stable and predictable funding system that provides appropriate incentives to users and to the FAA to operate more efficiently and facilitating modernization of the aviation system on a more rational, equitable and predictable basis.””

That sounds like declaring if the FAA knew how much money it was getting in each year it could know how much it could spend. Say it often enough and it will be believed. However, to achieve a steady source of funding, more would have to change than the manner of collecting funds.

This year about 82% of the FAA budget came from the trust fund and 18% from general revenues. Under the existing budget treatment for FAA, it costs the Appropriations Committee the same amount whether they appropriate money from the trust fund or from the general fund. Either way, the amount of the appropriation counts against the committee’s overall discretionary spending limit. This means that even if the trust fund revenues were booming, spending out of the trust fund would still have to compete with all other discretionary spending in the federal budget. Therefore, increasing trust fund revenues or stabilizing the amount of annual contributions will not, in themselves, mean the FAA will have a more stable funding.

Those favoring user fees also point out that the trust fund is going broke. In the year 2000, the uncommitted balance was about $7 billion; in fiscal 2004 it had dwindled to about $2.4 billion. However, four out of these last five years, government estimates of revenue exceeded the actual revenues. The statutory requirement to appropriate from the trust fund the amount of revenue projected in the President’s budget has resulted in the significant decreases.

These points have not come out in the repetitive comments about the need for a stable source of revenue.

Strong opposing positions are now starting to come forth. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has stated its position often that the airline and FAA positions should be questioned. AOPA President Phil Boyer launched the push at the annual meeting of the American Association of Airport Executives. AOPA also sent a message to every member of Congress pointing out some of the dangers of letting the airlines usurp control of air traffic control from Congress.

Other aviation groups are getting more active and will continue to do so during the coming months before Congress takes action on the aviation taxes, which are due to expire on Sept. 30, 2007.

Whichever side gets its story told often enough will get it believed and acted on.

The basic issue is not who pays how much for the air traffic control system or how it will be collected. Half of all the air activity in the world occurs in airspace of the United States. The present system simply can’t accept much more growth. Flight numbers must be controlled over the many years it will take to revamp it.

As the struggle for the minds of lawmakers increases, so will the intensity of the issues and counter-issues. Each side will play new cards to make their points.

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

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