Expect big battles in Congress next year: User fees, runway safety and overworked controllers just the beginning of the conflicts

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Democrats in Congress recently attacked the FAA over runway incursions and air traffic controller conditions — and were immediately rebutted by the FAA and a Republican member of the aviation committee, an indication there will be strong conflicts next year.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, accused the FAA of not using funds authorized for runway safety programs, adding that Congress had hearings on the subject in 1991 and the agency has failed to act on any of the recommendations or promises made at that time. He, along with Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), called a news conference to release a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that shows serious increases in runway incursions and that controller shortages and overtime requirements contribute to the problem.

Basically, the report said runway incursions were 12% higher in fiscal year 2007 than in 2006; the FAA’s plan for runway safety is out of date; and that controller fatigue might play a role in runway safety.

Runway incursions peaked in 2001, declined over the next five years and then jumped again in 2007, averaging about one per day, almost as high as the 2001 figures.

Calling the GAO findings “”distressing,”" Oberstar accused the FAA of failing to meet issues brought to light in hearings 16 years ago. “”Despite spending billions on runway safety over the last five years, the GAO found that the Federal Aviation Administration’s lack of coordination and leadership, technology challenges, the lack of data, and human-factor related issues have seriously hindered significant progress on runway safety,”" he said.

Oberstar included the airlines in his call for action. “”They must come together,”" he said, “”to use unused capacity in mid-mornings and mid-afternoons.”" As an example of the crunch at airports — which cause delays — he noted there are 57 flights scheduled to take off at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport exactly at 7 a.m. That can’t be done, he added.

Controller shortage and fatigue play a role in potential runway incursions, the GAO report concluded. At least 20% of the controllers at one-fourth of the air traffic control facilities are regularly working six days a week. After new work rules and pay cuts, 10% of controllers left their jobs in FY 2007.

Immediately following the press conference, the FAA released its own figures contradicting the GAO report. FAA officials said there were 24 “”serious”" runway incursions last year, a reduction from the previous year. As for controllers, the administration says it hired 1,815 new controllers last year. Most new controllers must work under the supervision of an experienced one before handling a position.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, also released a statement critical of the GAO report and his Congressional colleagues. “”It is the height of hypocrisy to criticize the FAA,”" he said, “”for not quickly putting into place runway and ramp technology, data collection processing and staffing studies, while at the same time delaying passage of funding for these very initiatives in order to appease a favored special interest group.”" This referred to the House passage of the FAA reauthorization without user fees, as lobbied for by general aviation, instead of agreeing with the Senate version, which has fees, a position on which Mica agrees with the President and the FAA.

In another Congressional action, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) will serve as the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Aviation. She replaces Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a supporter of fees in the Senate bill, who retires at the end of this year. Hutchison opposes the fee section of the Senate bill. Whether this change will help to get an agreement between the House and Senate, or speed up the passage of the legislation, will not be known until next year.

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

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