FAA budget plan digs deeper into trust fund

 - October 12, 2007, 9:53 AM

The Bush Administration has proposed a $14 billion reauthorization budget for the FAA for fiscal year 2004, taking a bigger bite from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund but calling for no new user fees. The FAA spending plan is part of the overall Transportation Department budget package, and is up slightly from the $13.6 billion requested for FY 2003.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson said that while “a few details…are being refined,” the President’s budget and reauthorization proposal would maintain current levels of infrastructure investment and expand the FAA’s safety staff, including the number of air traffic controllers needed as the FAA faces anticipated controller retirements.

Although Congress will ultimately decide how much money the FAA receives, where it comes from and pretty much where it is spent, the White House meanwhile is proposing to take more money out of the aviation trust fund and rely less on money from the federal government’s general fund.

The budget for FY 2004 (Oct. 1, 2003 to Sept. 30, 2004) is about 3 percent higher than the estimated total for 2003, the last year of the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21). Jackson said this will be a year of special focus on highway and aviation safety.

“For the last 15 months [Transportation] Secretary [Norman] Mineta and his senior management team have spent a great deal of their time focused on the security threats that face transportation,” he said. “This was absolutely necessary and I think we’ve made great progress in having that focus. But for this year…Secretary Mineta has challenged us to focus with that same passion, that same innovation on a simple but profoundly important goal–improving safety and saving lives.”

The Bush Administration’s budget requests $7.6 billion for FAA operations, a 7.3-percent increase over FY 2003. Noting that travel demand for air service will “inevitably return to and exceed” pre-9/11 levels, Jackson said the nation cannot afford to reduce its commitment to investing in the ATC system, as well as in airports. “Equally important,” he said, “we cannot take our eye off the safety goals–reduce aviation fatality rates by 80 percent over the period 1996 to 2008.”

Most of the funds requested for FAA operations in 2004 support the goal of maintaining and increasing aviation safety, while other significant amounts support mobility and homeland and national security. Of the $7.6 billion in operations funds, $7.1 billion is for what is generally lumped into “safety.” That includes funding for inspecting aircraft and ensuring the safety of flight procedures, as well as funding for operating and maintaining the air traffic control system. That also pays the salary and benefits cost for an estimated 18,287 ATC workforce and 9,267 system maintenance technician staff.

For FY 2004, the White House proposes to enhance safety with $17 million in discretionary increases to hire an additional 302 air traffic controllers in anticipation of a surge in retirements, expand selected safety programs such as Safer Skies, and hire an additional 20 aviation safety staff to monitor the safety performance of airlines.

Improving Efficiency
The President’s budget also provides $254 million to improve aviation efficiency, including $5 million to improve the flow of air traffic through such efforts as airspace redesign. In addition, $2.3 billion is requested to reduce aircraft delays by replacing old radars, automated terminal control facilities and funding Free Flight and oceanic automation to improve flight route flexibility.

In an attempt to increase daily arrivals at the nation’s airports to more than 49,000 per day by the end of 2004–compared with an average of 47,000 arrivals per day in 2002–the FAA wants $3.4 billion in the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) to build additional runways and improve existing facilities. Also included in that is money for security, safety and noise-reduction projects.

The FY 2004 budget would provide $145 million for homeland and national security, even though most responsibility for airport security (the Transportation Security Administration) has been moved to the new Department of Homeland Security. Part of the appropriation will be used to hire 26 controllers to work with the Defense Department to better manage and secure national airspace.

Under facilities and equipment, Bush requests $2.9 billion to continue to modernize the equipment central to the National Airspace System (NAS). While most of it ($2.3 billion) goes for new ATC equipment, $538 million is for projects to reduce aviation fatalities, such as improvements to weather sensing and reporting systems, safety information databases and computer systems to assist safety inspections, improvements to flight services for general aviation, and research and new technology to reduce runway incursions.

“AIR-21 invested substantially in capacity and infrastructure, both in terms of the airspace and NAS modernization, as well as in terms of AIP funding,” said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. “So the ongoing commitment there is to maintain that level of investment, a substantial increase over where the FAA was on both those fronts before AIR-21.”

The Administration is seeking a four-year budget reauthorization for the FAA, versus the three years in AIR-21. Even though revenues going into the aviation trust fund have declined as result of the economy and effects of 9/11, Jackson said the White House proposes to increase the amount of money taken from the trust fund from 76 percent to 88 percent by the end of the reauthorization period.

“What we are going to do is spend down the trust fund somewhat,” said Jackson, “in a reasonable, careful fashion to be able to squeeze more value out of the trust-fund balances over this next four-year period and to keep the investment at a level and prudent rate during the course of the reauthorization cycle.”

Jackson said that “we look forward to working with Congress as it considers the President’s 2004 budget request” and added that “we hope to be able to move in a timely fashion to join the debate in Congress.”