FAA prepares to meet airspace challenges

 - February 2, 2007, 9:13 AM

While Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has promised that the government will not stand in the way of innovative aviation ideas, at a January meeting of the Washington Aero Club he warned that “we need to start thinking creatively about long-term options for financing infrastructure.” He did not specify what those options might be.

He said the FAA has a new emphasis on productivity, is using metrics to drive decision-making and investments and has improved financial accountability, which helped the DOT to get a “green light” from the White House Office of Management and Budget for its progress on financial management.

“In fact, earlier this week, the FAA came off the Government Accountability Office’s list of high-risk agencies for financial management,” Mineta told the meeting. “These changes are helping the FAA to work smarter and harder to modernize our facilities and keep air traffic moving safely and efficiently.”

Mineta acknowledged that these new financial improvements allow the FAA to maximize and leverage the funds available through the aviation trust fund
to build new airports and add runways, towers and other infrastructure to improve safety and expand capacity.

But the financially strapped airlines are looking for ways to reduce their own taxes, and since 9/11 the revenue flowing into the trust fund has dropped significantly. At the same time, the airlines have claimed that they have been subsidizing general aviation and government users of the civil aviation system for years.

Some airlines are lobbying hard for user fees, and Air Transport Association president and CEO Jim May has called for elimination of the fuel tax–which is how GA contributes to the Aviation Trust Fund–and a “rebalancing” of contributions to the fund. “There are a variety of ideas out there,” said Mineta, “and we are looking actively at all of them.”

In what he called his “State of Aviation” address, the DOT secretary said the U.S. is harnessing technology to use airspace more efficiently, and he cited as an example the reduced vertical separation minimums standards that began January 20. The result is essentially a doubling of airspace capacity in the affected altitudes (FL290 to FL410), as well as the creation of more fuel-efficient routes.

Technology Improvements
The Next Generation Air Trans-portation System, which Mineta announced before the Aero Club last year, continues to forge ahead, he explained. “Thanks to intense efforts and one of the best examples of interagency cooperation that I have witnessed,” Mineta continued, “we delivered our blueprint for transforming the system–the Integrated National Plan–to Congress last month [December].”

When he unveiled the system last year, he said the next-generation system would offer seamless security and added capacity to relieve congestion, as well as secure the nation’s place as the global leader in aviation’s second century.

“The plan represents tremendous progress, but it is only one step on what will be a long journey toward developing the next-generation system,” said Mineta. “As we move forward, your involvement will be critical. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this initiative or the importance of the private sector to its ultimate success.”

Mineta has signed on to lead the transportation department during President Bush’s second term, and he reminded the Aero Club that he has been involved with aviation in one capacity or another for nearly four decades. The former mayor of San Jose, Calif., now has the city’s airport named in his honor, and he spent 20 years in Congress, part of it as chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. When he was working in the private sector, he chaired the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, which became known as the Mineta Commission.

“Aviation has always attracted men and women who are not content to stand still, who are forever pushing boundaries in their quest to go higher and further,” Mineta said, adding, “I want to make sure that the government is doing its part to clear the runway for their creative ideas to take off.”

He noted that India became the U.S.’s 67th open skies partner, and within the last year the U.S. has concluded new, liberalized bilateral aviation agreements that connect more than 46 percent of the world’s population.

“Open skies is yet another U.S.-led aviation innovation–one that over time has transformed the global framework for international air services,” Mineta said. “It is gratifying to see how widely the doctrine has been accepted around the world.”

Citing the growth of low-cost, fewer-frills airlines, he said there has been no sign the airlines have compromised their commitment to safety. “All of us have worked hard to regain the confidence of the flying public, in part through a vigilance that has driven the commercial accident rate in the U.S. down to less than one for every five million departures, the lowest it has ever been,” Mineta said.