Double whammy

Can Congress agree on anything?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Aviation is getting a double whammy in the increasing struggles over budgets, with the first being reauthorization of the FAA, followed by the President’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012. Neither seems to be approaching anything near agreement between the House and Senate.

The FAA, which has been working with short-term extensions since 2007, needs either passage of a long-term reauthorization or another short-term extension before March 31. Just a week before the deadline, Congress is working on yet another temporary extension, which will give FAA funding through May 31. The bigger issue of the total budget has sidetracked aviation in both Houses of Congress.

The 2012 budget from the President requests $18.7 billion for the FAA, an increase of $3 billion over FY 2010’s enacted level, but $685 million below the revised 2011 level. The latest request is for $9.8 billion for maintenance, communications, and logistical support of the air traffic control and navigation systems, including 106 new safety inspectors and data analysts. In operations, $24 million is for staffing, studies, and analysis of environmental impacts of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, known as NextGen. Operations include taking $485 million less from the general fund and $958 million more from the aviation trust fund.

Overall, the President’s budget requests $1.1 billion for NextGen and $50 million for near-term improvements in the air traffic infrastructure. This is an increase of $347 million enacted in 2010. Requests propose: $26 million for area navigation/required navigational performance; $285 million for implementation of satellite-based surveillance capabilities; $150 million for air-to-ground data communications; $109 million for data communication; $109 million to conduct system level engineering reviews of human factors, safety, environment, wake turbulence, future ATC communications, and surveillance requirements; and $58 million to develop technologies and decision support tools to improve operations in the terminal environment.

Grants in aid for airports proposes $5.5 billion in FY 2012. Of this, $2.4 billion would be for on-going grants to support smaller commercial and general aviation airports. Larger airports would be given more flexibility to generate their own revenue.

How much of these financial requests stay in the final funding is questionable. Both the Senate and the House are digging in their heels. With the federal debt running more than $14 trillion, one thing is certain — there will be cuts. What they are and how much they will be is bringing speculation and heavy lobbying from all sides, including aviation groups.

In aviation — like everything else in the budget — the cry is “reduce spending, but not in my area.”

Even the politicians know spending must be reduced. As one elected official said a few years ago, “A billion here and a billion there pretty soon adds up.”

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

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