Experts finally feel aviation budget woes

 - September 21, 2006, 11:23 AM

Have you ever heard the comments about Washington, D.C., being a merry-go-round or the suggestion that reality stops at the Beltway? There’s a host of such jabs aimed at the decisions that flow from the nation’s capital. I think we all have complained about some of the decisions from Washington in general or the DOT/FAA in particular. I have no intention of trying to defend some of the decisions that seem disconnected from reality.

However, I can suggest one reason why some of the decisions seem disconnected from reality. Often compromises must be made, sometimes at the last minute, to get something out. In every area of our aviation system there are experts in Washington who interject themselves into the decision-making process to help address a specific issue. Of course, they also earn their living by watching out for their clients.

Who are these folks who provide their knowledge and expertise to help facilitate these improvements to our aviation system?

Some are very expensive Washington-based law firms; some are professional lobbyists and others are former congressmen and former staff members. Also involved are all the trade associations that add their thoughts to the process, including bringing the industry leadership to Washington to work the issue with both congressional visits as well as visits to the agency decision makers.

That system–even with its flaws– has served us well for more than 50 years. All the Washington players have developed their niche and make a comfortable living working for the aviation industry. In most cases their work improves what eventually emerges as a law or a rule that we must comply with.

A Change in Attitude

The money to pay for the expensive Washington help comes from our industry in one way or another. For example, the trade associations charge their members a fee to support the association, including offices and staff. Sometimes there are special assessments to pay for extraordinary expenses. Somebody also has to pay for the law firms and lobbyists, which are expensive. One less obvious source of funding is the government itself. With millions of dollars going to many projects one can only imagine how many people will line up to get a piece of the action.

I was in Washington only a short time before I was exposed to almost constant complaining about what a pilot gets paid or what a mechanic gets paid or what another employee group gets paid. The story is always the same: the airlines are losing money and risk going out of business solely because of what they are paying their employees.

When the price of oil climbed rapidly, it was the pay reductions that the employees accepted that mitigated that cost. While the aviation employees were making all the sacrifices I rarely heard anyone in Washington express any concern about the employees. In fact, what I heard were comments indicating pleasure about the reduction in pay for pilots and other groups. That certainly was the attitude that was prevalent at the time.

Recently there is another change taking place in Washington. Because of the success of low-cost carriers the revenue generated from the tax on airline tickets has not grown as expected for the past several years, and with a larger allocation going to the FAA operations account there has been less money available for airport improvements and other projects. The result is that hundreds of millions of dollars are no longer available for all the projects that we have come to expect. In addition, the money to pay for all those Washington experts is no longer available.

Suddenly things are different, and the same people who complained about the costs of the aviation employees now are facing considerable reductions in money available for the projects that are near and dear to their revenue stream. How times have changed. I recently attended a conference that included a discussion about the Aviation Trust Fund and what projects weren’t funded and how concerned the Washington experts were about that development. Attendees bandied about a considerable amount of doom and gloom.

I too am worried that lack of funding for some of the work will hurt aviation. Some fiscal cutbacks will have little effect. In an effort to change the administration’s position on spending down the Aviation Trust Fund there was a passionate plea to all gathered to contact their congressmen to attempt to restore the funding. It seems that we recognize a problem when the impact hits closer to Washington.