A long hot summer

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “Long hot summer” in Washington is more than a description of the humid weather. This year it refers more to political struggles and how they are affecting general aviation.

Opposing goals by the President and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are causing all special interest groups — including aviation — to ratchet up their political and public information activities.

Here are a few examples:

The budget crunch is placing in jeopardy early development of the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System (NextGen). The Department of Transportation’s inspector general said in December that NextGen was already behind schedule and $65 million over budget on software alone. The President has asked for $1.24 billion for NextGen in fiscal 2012, but the House wants to cut the FAA’s budget, which could slow development even further.

General aviation and the airlines have all started to equip aircraft, but it is only the beginning. Those who equip early fear the expense of having to replace with more up-to-date equipment the longer the delay. Another major problem for spending money now is that only a portion of the benefits of NextGen can be felt until more airports are built. This could take a decade or more, even under good conditions.

Administrator Randy Babbitt pushes hard for FAA funding at every Congressional hearing where he appears. It took a collision between two airliners over the Grand Canyon in 1956 before government moved more quickly to using radar in air traffic control. That was for safety, the magic word to spend dollars. NextGen is for faster flights and dollar savings — important, but not magic, words.

General aviation organizations went into overdrive after the President mentioned higher taxes for business jets six times in a recent news conference. Although the President and the general media continually refer to it as “business jets,” the tax hike would apply to all aircraft bought for business purposes, which is a hefty portion of the industry. Even personal aircraft are frequently flown for business. All of GA’s alphabet groups, including the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), National Air Transportation Association (NATA), Helicopter Association International (HAI), the Alliance for Aviation Across America, as well as Wichita’s mayor, a senator, and others tried to put out the fire. They achieved a lot of media coverage about the value of business flying to the American economy, but hardly enough to overcome years of general aviation keeping a low profile. NATA’s Jim Coyne called it “perplexing” that the President could make such a statement the day after appearing at an aircraft manufacturing facility pushing for jobs. Until general aviation interests achieve a better public understanding of flight, associations will continue to be so busy fighting alligators that they won’t be able to drain the swamp.

In the midst of it all, the National Transportation Safety Board released its “10 Most Wanted List” of safety improvements with “Improve general aviation safety” number three on the list. This despite the fact general aviation safety has been continually improving. In 2010 there were 450 fatalities in general aviation, but more than 40,000 in automobiles. And did you know that accidents cause more fatalities in hospitals? But the NTSB doesn’t have hospitals as part of its responsibilities.

But there’s more: The Global Positioning System (GPS) is in a defensive mode because the Federal Communication Commission has frequencies for a company called LightSquared to build a broadband internet infrastructure adjacent to those used by GPS. This interference can cause GPS to be unreliable. Aviation interests of all types are struggling on this one.

The Department of Transportation wants to eliminate the Block Aviation Registration Request (BARR) program and let anyone log in and find the departure, route and destination of GA flights. GA interests call it an invasion of privacy and a danger.

And yes, Congress has failed to give a long-term reauthorization to the FAA since 2003 because of differences between the Senate and the House. There have been a record 20 short-term extensions. FAA officials contend that long-term planning is difficult without a long-term funding solution.

Who said: “Summer time and the living is easy?”

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

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