WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Charles Dickens wrote “A Tale of Two Cities,” he might have forecast general aviation in the year 2011 with the comment, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Next year has the potential for being a productive growth period, but the challenges to be met might be insurmountable.
On the plus side, there is a wider public understanding of general aviation, as well as in Washington, D.C., where both Houses of Congress now have general aviation caucuses. Airline travel is more of a hassle and airlines are retrenching to serve fewer cities, meaning charter and personal aircraft will be more practical. GA groups are working together better, and the sport pilot license permits students to get started with a little less complexity. All these factors point to growth opportunities.
But the challenges are massive. First is the continued failure to pass FAA reauthorization. The lame duck session will have to pass another temporary extension, the 17th such temporary extension, to continue to fund the agency. The House approved the extension Dec. 2, but the Senate had yet to act by press time. This means reauthorization will have to be taken up by the 112th Congress when the Houses are split with a slight Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House. Although some of the differences on reauthorization between the Senate and the House were resolved, there’s still a lot of work to be done, which will no doubt mean additional temporary extensions will be needed.
With government spending out of control and the federal debt ballooning, Congress will be looking for ways to curtail costs and increase income, meaning the subject of user fees might again raise its ugly head. The Senate has long favored user fees, while the House has fought against them. Look for user fees to become another reason for not getting reauthorization until later in the year.
Security also will be a major issue. Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) continues to say he is concerned about how someone in general aviation can walk right to an airplane and take off without ever talking to or being checked by anyone. The Transportation Security Administration doesn’t seem to know what general aviation is or how it operates, believing that “one size fits all.” Forcing impractical security restrictions on even the smallest airport will hurt personal, corporate, and charter flights, as well as the economies of the communities they serve. GA advocacy groups will continue trying to offer assistance, but it will be an uphill struggle. (See more on security issues in the new year in the Guest Editorial on page 10).
The Next Generation Air Traffic Transportation System (NextGen) will probably become a bigger football in the coming year. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who is in line to chair the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently asked the Government Accountability Office to look into NextGen. That non-partisan office found the FAA has failed to make many key decisions on NextGen, yet continues to award expensive contracts. Airlines and owners of GA aircraft will continue to be reluctant to invest in needed equipment because of the uncertainty of benefits; the controllers’ union will continue to push ahead for implementation; and the necessary reduction in federal spending will add to Congressional complaints about the FAA not yet determining how much airport capacity might be added when billions are spent on NextGen. With the budget constraints, watch for frequent flare-ups on the whole NextGen program.
Airports will be in the spotlight more in the coming year. The FAA will be focusing on airport expenditures after the Department of Transportation Inspector General’s report of improper payments in the airport improvement program was released earlier this month.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen states will have new governors and might have new aeronautics directors. All states have their own financial difficulties and will be looking for any place to save money or raise funds, which means avgas taxes will probably be looked at closely in many states.
Other issues you might want to watch for in the coming year include: Through-the-fence regulations for airports with homes and hangars adjacent to the runway; a push to eliminate the third-class medical and make all non-commercial pilots — like sport pilots — use a valid driver’s license instead; and more activity by GA’s alphabet groups informing and educating the general public, legislators, and the media.
So fasten your seat belts — there could be turbulence ahead with a politically split Congress, a massive federal debt, major security issues, and general aviation being a readily-visible activity that law-makers and regulators can point to as taking action. Of this you can be sure, the groups representing general aviation’s interests will earn their money in 2011.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.