WASHINGTON, D.C. — Make sure your seatbelt is fastened tightly as turbulence is expected in 2010.
Once again the FAA will be working under a temporary extension. Presidential and Congressional interests have been focused on reforming healthcare, so subjects like reauthorizing a government agency are getting short shrift.
When Congress does get around to the FAA, there will be many differences to be ironed out. The House bill, under the leadership of Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), wants reauthorization with no user fees. The Senate wants to charge fees. The unprecedented spending by the federal government in 2009, plus less income from a slower economy and a campaign promise not to raise taxes on anyone but the very rich, means funds must be found somewhere to foot the bills. A user fee would not be called a tax, so expect some strong pushes to add charges.
Aviation interests will be urging the government to move quickly on developing the next generation air transportation system (NextGen). Money — no surprise — is going to be the big stumbling block here.
You might see the “Washington Monument Argument” used here. That’s when government says money is so tight it will stop running the elevator to the top of the Washington monument. “You can’t do that,” everyone screams. “Nobody can walk up that many flights of stairs.” Government answers: “OK, then we’ll have to put in a hefty tax or fee.”
Aviation’s push for NextGen could well be what government user fee proponents want to make their argument: “You want it so badly, you must pay for it.” A word of advice for those pushing NextGen: As the old TV cop show said every week: “You all be careful out there.”
Security is another area expected to get a working over. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has said he is “deeply concerned about the state of aviation security,” adding, “In particular, we remain too vulnerable in general aviation.”
He plans to introduce legislation early in 2010 relating to maritime security, so don’t be surprised if he later introduces legislation setting new laws for aviation security.
You will probably see continued and improved cooperation among general aviation interests. Cooperation moved ahead in 2009 and mutual problems in 2010 could bring associations into more coordinated action. Associations are realizing that an airplane flies best when all controls work in coordination.
Meanwhile, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt will be trying to rebuild morale, maintain good workers and attract competent new ones to the agency. Differences between FAA management and air traffic controllers have not completely gone away, despite a contract agreement after years of bickering.
Unlike most government agencies, FAA follows practices used by leading organizations. As part of strategic workforce planning, the agency determines the critical skills needed and assesses individual worker skill levels. It also follows leading practices in performance management, but there are concerns about the system’s fairness. By 2013 it is estimated that 38% of the employees who work on NextGen will be eligible for retirement. Bottom line: Babbitt will be faced with major employee decisions in 2010.
The FAA also contracts out some programs to private businesses, such as flight service stations. As money gets tighter, look for possible further reductions or consolidation of some services.
In the coming year continue to expect airport access to be a subject simmering under the surface and perhaps bubbling over if airlines continue to have financial difficulties. New airspace configurations and air traffic management at hub areas won’t help lower the bottom line costs for airlines unless there are significant increases in runway availability.
With 2010 being a mid-term election year — while the differences between liberals and conservatives over significant issues and government’s role continue to grow — there could be months of inactivity in many aviation matters as there has been on FAA reauthorization. The “Ins” will be trying to keep their constituents pleased and may be slow to take significant actions in order to protect their positions.
On the brighter side, the airlines’ elimination of service to many smaller cities increases the value of personal, business and air taxi flying to many more parts of the country. Also, emergence of more sport planes on the market and their additional selling efforts with lower operating costs should get more people involved in GA.
This has been a gloomy forecast for the beginning of the second decade of the century. I hope I am wrong. The most important thing — to take a cue from what we said back in World War II about general aviation — “Keep ‘em flying. Keep ‘em ALL flying.”
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.