Washington Report: November 2005

 - October 18, 2006, 1:41 PM

Congress Might Clip NASA’s Wings
NASA’s use of seven of its fleet of 85 aircraft to transport employees to routine site visits, meetings, speeches and conferences cost American taxpayers $20 million more than having space agency personnel fly on the airlines.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that NASA-owned and -chartered passenger aircraft services cost taxpayers an estimated five times more than flying on the airlines. While the majority of NASA air travel is on the airlines, NASA employees took at least 1,188 flights using NASA passenger aircraft services during FY2003 and 2004.

“Use of passenger aircraft services can save time, provide more flexibility to meet senior executives’ schedules and provide other less tangible and quantifiable benefits,” the GAO said in a report to Congress. “However, the GAO’s analysis of available reported data related to NASA passenger aircraft services during Fiscal Years 2003 and 2004 showed NASA’s reported costs were nearly $25 million compared with estimated airline coach transportation costs of about $5 million.”

The GAO noted that the cost comparison did not take into account all types of costs associated with NASA passenger aircraft services such as depreciation on the estimated $14 million NASA paid in 2001 to acquire several aircraft used for passenger transportation.

In FY2003, NASA owned and operated a fleet of 85 aircraft valued at $362 million, including aircraft dedicated to program support, R&D and passenger transportation. Fifty-three aircraft supported such programs as the Space Shuttle, International Space Station and astronaut corps.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) asked the GAO to focus on controls to prevent waste or abuse of NASA’s passenger aircraft services. In general, federal policy stipulates that agencies should operate aircraft only as necessary to meet mission requirements.

The lawmakers asked that the GAO audit address the relative cost of NASA passenger aircraft services against commercial coach costs, whether NASA aircraft services were retained and operated in accordance with government-wide guidance and the effectiveness of NASA’s oversight and management of the program.

“Because NASA management has been largely unresponsive to similar prior recommendations,” the GAO wrote, “this report includes a matter for congressional consideration concerning legislation to restrict NASA’s ownership of passenger aircraft and funding for passenger aircraft services to those needed solely to meet valid mission requirements. Depending on NASA actions, additional congressional action may also be needed.”

NASA’s passenger aircraft include two Gulfstream IIs, a GII-SP, a GIII and two King Air 200s. They are stationed throughout NASA facilities. In addition, NASA obtained passenger transportation services from the Defense Department using a GV, from three FAA-owned aircraft and from Flexjet as part of a two-year demonstration program authorized by Congress.

In one example, NASA spent $51,000 for a roundtrip from Dulles International Airport to San Francisco for a public hearing. The commercial cost was estimated to be about $8,000.

NASA’s oversight and management controls over its passenger aircraft operations were ineffective, according to the GAO. The report added that NASA lacks the systems or procedures to accumulate and use agency-wide usage and cost data needed to provide the transparency and accountability necessary to effectively support day-to-day management of its passenger aircraft service operations.

“Immediate actions to dispose of all aircraft not needed to address mission requirements and adoption of more flexible, less costly alternatives to satisfy future mission requirements would best position NASA to meet its stewardship responsibilities for taxpayer funds it receives and better enable it to meet its current fiscal challenges,” the GAO concluded.

The congressional watchdog agency said Congress should consider whether legislation is necessary to ensure that NASA disposes of all of its passenger aircraft not used in accordance with the White House Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) explicit policy prohibition against owning aircraft to support travel to routine site visits, meetings, speeches and conferences; and funding for future NASA passenger aircraft purchases and operations is restricted to those necessary to meet mission requirements consistent with OMB guidance.

In written comments, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said NASA would review its policies and procedures related to aircraft management to ensure they are aligned with OMB requirements and conduct a comprehensive study of the agency’s passenger aircraft operations to be completed by the end of last month.

GA Groups Issue Ice Warning

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), NBAA and the National Air Transportation Association are partnering to promote a safety-awareness program to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents related to ice contamination.

A review of the accident data of both commercial and private business aircraft for last year and the first half of this year is troubling, the associations said. While the NTSB has not issued a final report on any of these accidents, the groups believe that in-flight and ground icing might have been a contributing factor in some.

The three organizations are sending a joint letter to operators and FBOs within the business aircraft community highlighting the extra measures operators should take when flying in a winter climate. The letter also provides references to online resources containing detailed guidance and comprehensive educational tools for icing operations.

“Operations in a winter environment require extra attention from the flight crew before takeoff as well as in flight,” said Pete Bunce, president and CEO of GAMA. “We have found that tactile inspections of the critical surfaces help the operator ensure safe operation in a cold climate.”

NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen added, “Because the coming cold weather will bring with it unique considerations for aircraft operation, it is appropriate that leaders in business aviation inform or remind aircraft operators about the industry leading practices for ensuring that the winter flying season is as safe as possible.”

U.S. Aerospace Industry ‘Robust

Statistics compiled by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) show the industry is on pace to have its best year in terms of orders and shipments in more than a decade. Meanwhile, the industry added 11,000 jobs since the end of last year.

Statistics compiled by the AIA’s Aerospace Research Center show aircraft and parts new orders and shipments significantly increased in the first half of this year. The numbers– which represent both the civil and defense sides of the industry–also include search and navigation instruments.

AIA president and CEO John Douglass said the statistics, coupled with employment increases in the same period, reflect sustained growth. “These numbers reflect a robust industry, and we are confident the good results will continue through the rest of the year,” he said.

The industry logged $98.9 billion in net new orders through June, putting it on pace for $197.7 billion for the year. That compares with $164.9 billion last year and would be well ahead of the $166 billion in 2000, the best year for net new orders since 1992.

There were $83.5 billion in shipments through June, which would result in $167 billion by the end of this year if the trend continues. That outpaces the $158 billion last year, which is the best year on record since 1992.

The backlog of unfilled orders also increased, sitting at $228.7 billion at the end of June. Last year it reached $213.3 billion; the previous high– reached in 1997–was $221.2 billion.