President’s 2009 budget includes user fees, drop in airport aid

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The President’s fiscal year 2009 budget request for the FAA has been met with harsh criticism from aviation groups, as well as doubts and questions from the House aviation subcommittee.

Continued calls for user fees, coupled with a decline in airport aid, brought quick comments from general aviation leaders. “The White House just doesn’t get it on the budget,” said Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). “What part of ‘no’ doesn’t the White House understand?” he asked, referring to the House defeat of the user fee proposal in its vote last year to reauthorize the FAA.

Pete Bunce, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), accused the administration of “turning a deaf ear to Congress” regarding FAA reauthorization. The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) was quick to put a message critical of the repeated fee request on its website, followed by a plea to members to contact their members of Congress.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, called the budget “just more of the same,” adding that it falls well short of infrastructure needs. He pointed out that the request for airport aid is $1.15 billion less than the level authorized in the House version of the FAA bill, which was passed last September.

Smaller airports would suffer most, lawmakers said, because larger airports have other sources of revenue.

At a hearing, witnesses from the FAA and Department of Transportation were raked over the coals on subjects ranging from the budget to air traffic control and airline delays. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the subcommittee, reminded the witnesses that the user fee proposal was “soundly rejected” by the full House last year.

User fees are not needed, Dr. Gerald Dillingham told the subcommittee. He is the director of Physical Infrastructure Issues in the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The current system can provide sufficient funds for the development of the next generation air traffic control system (NexGen), he told lawmakers.

FAA’s estimate of $14 billion to $22 billion for the NexGen system is not the whole story, according to Costello. New reports reveal that, because the system is computer intensive, the cost for software could add as much as $50 billion. This could make the actual cost of the system four, five or six times more than the FAA’s current estimate, he said.

Also brought out at the hearing is the concern of aviation interests that they are not a part of the dialog for planning the coming air traffic control system and often don’t even know to whom they should talk about an issue, or even who is in charge of the program.

Although the subject of the hearing was the 2009 fiscal year budget, committee members zeroed in on the current conflict between FAA and air traffic controllers. Costello chided the FAA and DOT witnesses over the dealings with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). He noted there is no contract, as it was signed only by the FAA after no agreement could be reached with NATCA.

The controller shortage is getting critical, members of the committee said. Since 2005, more than 3,300 controllers have retired, a whopping 23% more than the FAA had anticipated.

Fueling part of the exodus is the fact that controllers hired in the early 1980s, after President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking controllers, are now of retirement age. Contributing to the departures is the fact that the FAA arbitrarily established a pay scale after failing to reach a contract agreement with NATCA following months of negotiations. The FAA is finding it difficult, under the new pay scale, to keep and attract controllers, causing many ATC locations to have too few experienced controllers. The administration is now offering $24,000 bonuses to senior controllers to stay on the job.

The Senate hearing considering the FAA budget was held past the deadline for this issue. The Senate also is holding up reauthorization of the FAA. This failure to give full-term reauthorization is mandating a need for short extensions. Funding for many parts of the FAA will expire Feb. 29 unless given another such extension. Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation, opined that this is making the FAA more inefficient and causing delays in many programs.

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

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