DOT IG concerned over runway incursions, FAA budget control

 - October 12, 2007, 10:45 AM

With runway incursions averaging one a day and close calls averaging one every 10 days, the Transportation Department’s inspector general has called on the FAA to follow through on its plans to train pilots to avoid runway incursions and use technology to warn pilots and controllers of potential incidents.

Citing the October 2001 crash between an MD-80 airliner and a Citation in Milan, Italy, which killed 118 people, DOT IG Kenneth Mead warned that the potential exists for similar accidents in the U.S.

In addition, some operational errors still pose a significant safety risk, with an average of three operational errors per day and one serious error every three days (in which a collision was barely averted). To reduce these incidents further, Mead said, the FAA needs to ensure that air traffic controllers who make operational errors receive additional training.

Mead did credit the FAA with reducing runway incursions from 407 in fiscal year 2001 to 338 in FY 2002, due in part to the agency’s “aggressive actions” to reduce these incidents. The FAA established a system to categorize runway incursions by severity of risk and has reduced the number of close calls (those runway incursions in the two highest categories) from 53 in FY 2001 to 37 in FY 2002.

Operational errors were down from an all-time high of almost 1,200 in 2001 to 1,061 in 2002, and Mead noted that FAA initiatives to reduce these errors included issuing guidance to improve regional plans for operational error reduction, and establishing a system to rate the severity of operational errors so that the FAA can focus its resources on reducing the most serious errors.

“A lot of people deserve some credit for that, in addition to the economic forces,” said Mead. “There’s been less traffic, less GA traffic, for example, but it’s the airports, the airlines, pilots and the FAA.” He cautioned, however, that despite an 11-percent reduction in operational errors and a 17-percent reduction in runway incursions, “Let’s not get complacent.”

Reducing the risk of aviation accidents due to operational errors and runway
incursions is among the Transportation Department’s Top Management Challenges, according to an annual report released by Mead’s office.

Budget Crunch
With the expiration of the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21) on September 30, the DOT will be faced with getting a reauthorization bill through Congress to cover the cost of running the FAA. Meanwhile, Mead warned that over the next six years, the estimated tax revenues in the Aviation Trust Fund are expected to be about 19 percent lower than was anticipated before 9/11.

“I will counsel against raising taxes,” Mead told reporters shortly after the report was issued. “I think the FAA, especially the operations side of the FAA, needs to look at what the airlines are going through, and they need to begin to engage in a serious way in cost control.” He added, “I don’t believe that there’s been a lot of financial discipline at the FAA.”

Revenue projections for the Aviation Trust Fund for fiscal year 2003 have dropped from $11.9 billion before 9/11 to about $9.4 billion, and over the next six years they are expected to total about $15 billion less than originally anticipated. At the same time, the FAA’s 2003 budget request of $14 billion exceeds the projected trust fund revenues by about $4.5 billion.

Assuming there are no new aviation taxes, that shortfall must come from the federal government general fund, which is income-tax dollars and not Aviation Trust Fund dollars, Mead said, and money in the general fund “competes with all other objects of federal expenditure,” such as security and Amtrak.

The FAA’s budget has continued to rise “at steep rates,” from $9 billion in 1998 to $14 billion in 2003, “largely driven” by operating costs. Payroll costs are about 73 percent of operating costs, which in turn have increased by 41 percent since 1998.

Mead’s office said the FAA needs to become proactive in taking actions to offset costs.

While the agency has taken extensive advantage of the flexibilities provided by personnel reform by substantially increasing salaries, there has been little corresponding management accountability for these costs.

When the FAA signed a five-year contract with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) in 1998, a reclassification of controller positions promised internal cost-saving incentives to increase efficiency and productivity of FAA operations. Asked if that productivity was delivered, Mead told AIN, “I haven’t found any evidence.” That contract was recently extended for two more years. Average full-performance-level controllers at major ATC facilities are making about $100,000 a year, he added.

According to the DOT IG, the FAA will need $4 billion from the general fund this year for its operations budget, although he would like to see that eventually reduced to $2 billion because of the severe competition for money from the general fund. And a good starting point for the FAA and new Administrator Marion Blakey would be a fully functioning cost-accounting system. “That may sound very auditorish,” he said, “but there is no such thing as a business that survives that doesn’t have a fully functioning cost-accounting system.”

Although such a system was supposed to be in place by 1998 at a cost of $12 million, it is now five years behind schedule and the cost has ballooned to $35 million and counting. Mead opined that the FAA cannot credibly claim to be a performance based organization (PBO)–a concept that former President Clinton ordered in December 2000 to manage the operation of ATC services–without cost accounting. To call itself a PBO, the IG said, “I think we need to see that in deeds as well as in words.”

In addition to reversing its spiraling operating costs, the FAA is also faced with improving aviation system capacity through ATC modernization and building new runways before the demand for air travel rebounds. “You get in the middle of gridlock,” Mead warned. “You can have all of the meetings and all of the congressional hearings and throw all of the money you want at something, but you’re not going to come out of that gridlock [in the] short term.”