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Federal Aviation Administration funding down to the wire

22-Jul-2011

In one of many examples of brinksmanship on display in Washington, a Senate objection to conditions imposed by the House of Representatives regarding Essential Air Service (EAS), threatens passage of FAA budget extension and a shutdown of non-essential FAA services and funding.

'Clean bill' needed

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a broadcast interview on July 21, stated he wants the Congress to pass a “clean bill”, which he defined as legislation that authorises continuation of the current bill’s funding and stipulations.

Since the FAA is faced with the need for constant extensions — there have already been 20 for the current bill — any changes enacted by an extension must then necessitate a complete revamp of the original legislation. With a deadline of midnight Friday, July 22, this kind of fundamental renegotiation is clearly impossible.

Critics have complained that the constant need for extensions undermines the agency’s ability to make and carry out long-term planning. This extension, even if passed, will only be in effect until 16-Sep-2011, certainly a less than ideal arrangement that creates almost constant uncertainty.

Mr LaHood was quick to note that ATC functions will remain operational and that there will be no discernible effect on the travelling public. However, 4000 other FAA employees, engaged in airport safety and Next Gen ATC research would be furloughed and funding for myriad airport improvement programmes (AIP) would be stopped, idling thousands of construction workers whose jobs are funded by AIP.

Unspecified fallout

While unable to give an exact number of private sector workers affected, Mr LaHood issued a stern message that in these times of already-high unemployment, putting thousands of additional workers out of jobs would exacerbate an already weak economic recovery. He was also unable to state whether or not the furlough of non-essential FAA staff could affect the final airworthiness approval of the B787.

When asked if the extension could be passed in time, his immediate response was:  “Yes, with a clean bill”, meaning one without the proposed changes and amendments. Regarding the process in general, with its need for constant extensions, he said: “This is not the right way to run our aviation system.”

When asked about the validity of claims that EAS programmes are in need of re-examination in light of the current push for austerity, he said that Congress was able to deal with that, but that the discussion should not interfere with the need to continue to fund programmes already underway.

Valid points on both sides

Those seeking to eliminate EAS funding at some airports, cite the fact that at Ely, Nevada, each passenger boarded is subsidised by USD3720 taxpayer dollars. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) is spearheading the push to remove these costs from the public trust and claims that this shows the willingness of the House to push for true fiscal reform.

Meanwhile, the Senate objects to having the entire programme held hostage to these new conditions. Though ostensibly an FAA funding issue, it does not take too much insight to see this as yet another expression of the ideological battles being waged in Washington.

Caught in ideological crossfire

Since just three airports would be affected by this new language, some are asking if the Senate is putting a whole system at risk for the sake of three small airports. However, those wanting the provisions removed argue that these stealth moves are unacceptable as a way of implementing change.

The best solution, of course, would be legislation that, once passed, would remain in effect for an extended period, eliminating the need for constant extension and creating a more secure environment for those charged with long-term planning.

But, as of now, the impasse continues and all focus is only on the immediate need, which, if passed, will provide calm until September.


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