Looking ahead to 2012: What to expect from lawmakers next year

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the new year approaches, pilots should fasten their seat belts. It could be a bumpy ride.

Next year’s election is expected to be one of the most volatile in decades. It will keep the President, Congress, and heads of government agencies focused on election and re-election.

Failure of the Super Committee to come to any agreement puts the onus on Congress to either let the mandated spending cuts go into effect or try to get — in both houses — agreements on reductions that the Super Committee could not achieve. So, politics will be a major issue in actions, legislation and, to some degree, decisions made by various agencies.

As campaigning gets into full swing, more and more TFRs will be put in place, with the president flying around the country to campaign and attend various special events occurring in even the most unexpected places. Pilots need to be sure to check before each flight. Officials at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) are working to ease the limitations increased TFRs can bring.

Funding for the FAA in 2012 was approved in a bill signed in November. However, this does not mean the agency’s budget woes are over. Funding could be changed as attempts are made to reauthorize the agency. Reauthorization of the FAA, stalled in Congress since 2007 over various disagreements, has a new point of disagreement — the budget. Unless an agreement can be reached before the 22nd temporary extension expires at the end of January, another short-term extension may need to be enacted.

Staffs of both the Senate and House committees have been trying to reach some sort of settlement. If an agreement is finally reached for reauthorization, funding of the aviation trust fund and NextGen will remain subjects to be watched. With a $15 trillion debt, Congress will be arguing over more money or less spending for these two critical aviation programs.

Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, is on record declaring that additional funding will be needed. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, wants no increases and a reduction in what he considers waste.

The staffs of both committees have been trying to resolve the differences and achieve some sort of settlement for a long-term reauthorization. Fuel tax increases and user fees as high as $100 for each flight have been tossed about. Fees are not considered taxes, so placing hefty user fees on any product, service, or activity would not violate a no-new-taxes position.

General aviation groups will continue trying to get a decision about repair station security out of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Congressional bills passed in 2003 and 2007 mandate setting security measures on repair stations. GA, and particularly the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), which represents the repair stations, have worked with the government to set up acceptable security measures for shops serving both foreign and domestic aircraft. While the public comment period expired in February 2010, no specific rules have been announced or approved by the Department of Homeland Security, so the industry has been in limbo regarding what is needed and what to do.

Recently, the presidents of 20 aviation groups signed a letter to Janet Napolitano, DHS secretary, urging that agency to promulgate the rule so certification of new service facilities can be done by the FAA and all stations know what is expected of them. Aircraft owners should follow this as DHS decisions could affect how their repair shops work — and possibly how much that work will cost, if shops are required to implement massive, expensive security measures.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to issue its ruling sometime in 2012 over LightSquared’s use of frequencies for its proposed wireless transmission network that interfere with those used by GPS. LightSquared is advertising and lobbying heavily to claim little or any interference; aviation groups, including GA and the airline industry, want the FCC to recognize that even “a little interference” can be deadly and to reject approval of LightSquared’s use of a spectrum of frequencies.

Watch for the start of FAA rulemaking about ADS-B — Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast — in the next year. In March 2010, the FAA issued a rule mandating ADS-B equipage by 2020 in any aircraft operating in airspace where a transponder is now required. The equipment gives more precise data about position than radar and the pilot can see a display of other aircraft in the immediate area. ADS-B is a cornerstorne in the NextGen air traffic control system.

Yet another issue for pilots to keep an eye on is BARR — the Block Aircraft Registration Request program. This is part of the system that lets individuals track, minute by minute, progress of aircraft. It shows location, altitude, airspeed, destination, estimated time of arrival, and the tail number of aircraft on IFR flight plans. In the past, this information could be blocked from release outside the air traffic control system. On March 4, the FAA said it could no longer be blocked and must be available to the public. GA, and particularly the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and AOPA, immediately said “whoa, this endangers us.” Officials claim it’s an invasion of privacy, exposes businesses to allowing competitors know where company officials are going, opens individuals to possible terrorist threats by people who might have a grudge against a company, and on and on.

NBAA and AOPA filed a lawsuit to reinstate BARR. Their efforts paid off. An addition to the latest appropriations bill passed by Congress ordered the FAA to restore BARR and make no changes in it. As this is written, no word has come from the FAA, and the GA groups have made no decisions on whether or not to continue the lawsuit. One point is certain: Whatever the FAA’s response to Congress’s mandate might be, unless it protects general aviation aircraft, the fighting will continue.

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

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