FAA funding battle heats up as Congress returns to D.C.

 - September 20, 2007, 9:33 AM

Congress has begun hashing out the final act in the most recent FAA funding battle. Bills in the House and the Senate are scheduled for votes and the differing measures could proceed to a joint House-Senate conference committee for final resolution later this fall. Some Capitol Hill observers expect that a conference agreement could be reached before the end of this month. If not, FAA funding will be left to a continuing resolution until the matter can be reconsidered next year.

The Senate bill, S.1300, partially funds the nation’s air traffic control system by imposing a $25 surcharge on each civilian turbine-powered aircraft flight, including those flown by the airlines. The House bill, H.R. 2881, would provide additional revenue by raising the aviation fuel tax from 21.8 to 30.7 cents per gallon on jet-A and from 19.3 to 24.1 cents on avgas. Neither revenue measure would provide anywhere near the level of funding analysts say is necessary to finance air traffic control modernization and runway/airport infrastructure expansion and improvement programs. Imposition of the $25 surcharge under the Senate bill is expected to produce only  $400 million annually, according to the Congressional Research Service. To put this in perspective, the House bill would provide around $65 billion in FAA funding between 2008 and 2011 for airport improvement, FAA facilities and equipment, and ongoing operations.

Nevertheless, the debate, even by contemporary Washington standards, has been particularly contentious, with the airline’s main trade lobby group, the Air Transport Association, lining up behind the Senate bill and conducting an extensive multimillion-dollar advertising and public relations campaign to persuade Congress to shift more than $2 billion of aviation taxes and fees from the airlines onto private aircraft.

ATA president James May launched early salvos in general aviation’s direction last year and ATA has been instrumental in orchestrating mainstream media coverage that suggests the recent rash of delayed airline flights is caused, at least in part, by the growth in private aircraft travel. This, even in the face of contradictory federal data that shows that most airline delays are caused by bad weather combined with airline over-scheduling at the nation’s 35 busiest airports. The situation came to a head in early July when May suggested publicly that the FAA should consider grounding business jets at New York-area airports as a way of temporarily easing airline delays.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Patrick Forrey recently re-emphasized this point, stating, “Severe weather accounts for over 70 percent of delays, which are exacerbated by the hub-and-spoke operation, and the rest is airline staffing woes, air traffic controller staffing shortages or the airlines’ own operations.”

Heated Words
Early last year, May told the National Aeronautic Association that an operator’s use of air traffic control resources should determine the amount owed to the FAA, “whether the aircraft is carrying three or 30 or 300 passengers.” Three months later, in an address to the International Aviation Club, May said, “ATA does not think that all general aviation–including million-dollar jets operated by private companies and others in the aviation business–should continue to pay far less than what it costs the FAA to deliver them safely through the airspace.”

The Senate bill also contains a provision to create an appointed Air Traffic Control Modernization Board that would have to approve funding for any FAA modernization expenditure greater than $100 million. The proposed seven-member board would include at least one airline CEO.

ATA and certain FAA officials have long argued that Congress is an unreliable funding source. However, an examination of current and past FAA funding bills shows that Congress routinely appropriates more money for FAA operations from the general fund than the agency requests.

For now, general aviation groups, including NBAA, have lined up behind the House bill. Testifying before Congress earlier this year, NBAA president Ed Bolen attacked user fees as overly bureaucratic and expensive to administer. “The fuel tax has none of these downfalls,” Bolen said. “Users pay the tax at the pump and the government easily collects it.”