Sanity urged in genav post-9/11 security policy

 - October 16, 2007, 6:43 AM

With the forcible shutdown of Chicago Meigs Field fresh in their minds, several members of the House aviation subcommittee called to eliminate some of the security restrictions that have been imposed on general aviation as a result of 9/11 and continuing unspecified terrorist threats. And general aviation trade associations pleaded with the lawmakers to create a cohesive federal policy on airspace and airport shutdowns.

“In many ways, general aviation is the forgotten element of the aviation system,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) during an FAA reauthorization hearing early last month. “Although it was the large airlines that were used in the September 11 terrorist attacks, general aviation has borne the brunt of many of the resulting security restrictions.”

The trade associations went to Capitol Hill to testify on what is now being called Flight-100, a replacement for the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21). That law set spending priorities and policies for the FAA for the past three fiscal years, but it expires September 30 at the end of FY 2003 and must be replaced.

Mica, whose district includes Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said his subcommittee would begin work on this new FAA reauthorization bill promptly, looking at both the proposals from the Bush Administration and ideas presented by the GA organizations at the hearing. He hopes to have a bill ready for introduction early this month.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate introduced S.824, its own version of an FAA reauthorization bill. It is called the Aviation Investment and Revitalization Vision Act (AIR-V) and, unlike the Bush Administration’s proposal, it is for three years instead of four.

The bipartisan legislation authorizes $10.5 billion for the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and $8.9 billion to upgrade the FAA’s ATC system, while establishing a funding mechanism to pay for security capital costs at airports. In addition to reauthorizing the FAA for three years, AIR-V would “strengthen FAA management by creating a committee of outside experts to oversee the operation and modernization” of the ATC system.

It would also streamline the process for approving and constructing airport capacity projects and make policy changes to a number of the FAA’s and Department of Transportation’s aviation programs.

“My top aviation policy goal is a full FAA reauthorization–money plus policies–not just a quick extension of this important agency,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee. He is hoping for quick action on the bill, telling the Washington Aero Club that “if we don’t get it by May, we will get run over [by other legislation].”

The White House is proposing a four-year FAA bill that it calls the Centennial of Flight Aviation Authorization Act (Flight-100). It requests $7.591 billion for FAA operations in FY 2004, an 8.1-percent increase over the FY 2003 budget request. Facilities and equipment would receive $2.916 billion in FY 2004, while research, engineering and development is earmarked for $100 million.

The Airport Improvement Program (AIP) investment would be $3.4 billion annually over the four years, although many in industry are asking that it be increased to $4 billion amid concerns that money will continue to be diverted away from airport infrastructure and into security requirements.

NBAA president Jack Olcott reminded the House aviation subcommittee that much of the planning for AIR-21 unraveled after 9/11, requiring airports and airlines to reevaluate capital spending and investment. AIP funds provided the necessary money for airport security projects.

“However, the AIP resources can- not and should not continue to support funding for outstanding security modifications and ongoing security modernization,” he said. “The FAA’s next reauthorization must ensure, once again, that the AIP is used for its original purpose–to enhance airport capacity and viability.”

General aviation airports share 20 percent of total AIP funds, and each is entitled to receive the amount of funds for its planned development as listed in the FAA’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems, with a limit of $150,000 per year per airport. The remaining funds are allocated to the states by a formula that factors the population and area of the states.

NBAA said the level of funding for GA airports provided in AIR-21 must be increased, and it further recommends increasing the state entitlement for general aviation airports from 20 percent to 21 percent. It also suggested that lawmakers increase the number of permits for innovative financing for small hub, non-hub and general aviation airports to 25.

With the Bush Administration proposing no new or increased user fees, general aviation interests seem generally satisfied with FAA funding, which totals $57.3 billion over the life of the proposal (FY 2004-07). But there is growing concern that the amount of money for the AIP is inadequate and the contribution from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund is too high.

“While the AIP would be funded at too low a level in the out years, the proposed contribution from the trust fund–at 79 percent over the four-year bill–is much too high,” said Jim Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA). “As this panel is well aware, the Airport and Airway Trust Fund has always been considered as a source of funding for capital improvements to the national air transportation system, not a bank account to pay the administrative expenses of the FAA.”

NATA suggested to the members of Congress that, at most, a 50-50 split between the federal budget’s general fund and the aviation trust fund be employed to help pay the FAA’s administrative expenses. Only in recent years has the agency been allowed to defray its costs by using trust-fund money, which comes mostly from passenger ticket taxes and aviation fuel taxes.

“Additionally, we are concerned with the proposed ‘draw-down’ of the trust fund’s uncommitted balance to a paltry $1.1 billion at the end of the four years,” said Coyne. “Such a plan fails to account for both the real needs in the AIP as well as reduced revenues flowing into the trust fund in the event of an even sharper downturn in the nation’s economy.”

General aviation representatives were of one voice when it came to urging the federal government to take some steps to ensure that GA has reasonable access to the nation’s airspace and the ability to land at desired destination airports. “We believe our concerns about losing access are justified,” said Ed Bolen, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). “Over the past several weeks and months, a handful of private enterprises and local governments, long opposed to general aviation operations for non-security reasons, have begun using security as a pretext for airspace restrictions.”

Bolen cited sports leagues, which have gotten temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) around their outdoor venues, along with Disney theme parks and the city of Chicago as among those that have successfully lobbied for GA airspace restrictions. And the House aviation subcommittee hearing came just days after Chicago Mayor Richard Daley tore up the runway at Meigs Field in the dead of night in the name of security.

“Our national air transportation system is far too important to the United States to allow powerful private enterprises and local communities to use their political clout to create an unjustified, ad hoc patchwork of airspace restrictions,” Bolen warned. “If allowed to spread, such a regulatory patchwork could easily degrade the margin of safety in our air transportation system.”

NATA said the ramifications of Daley’s actions go far beyond Lake Michigan because, in the aftermath, any community with the mere whim to close its local airport can do so and point to Chicago for justification. Without swift and strong condemnation by the FAA and others within the federal government, it said, Daley’s actions will be known as the beginning of the end for this nation’s highly developed air transportation system. “Pilots across the country are terrified by our government,” said Coyne.

“We are asking this subcommittee to look for a coherent national airspace policy” that balances threats with security and doesn’t “auction off airspace to bidders with the greatest political clout,” said Bolen. He suggested that if the FAA and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) know they will be accountable to the House aviation subcommittee for airspace and airport restrictions, “I think it will resonate.”

Added Olcott, “On matters of security, there must be preemption by the TSA.” He said that temporary flight restrictions and other regulations “shouldn’t be used for fulfilling a local political objective.”

The general aviation representatives seemed to receive mostly sympathetic comment and support from subcommittee members. “Some of the restrictions that have been placed on general aviation have outlived their usefulness–if there ever was any,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. “We should remove some that are no longer warranted–if they ever were.” He received claps of applause when he suggested that those who help rebuild Iraq should “practice on Meigs Field before they go over.”

Coyne said that “many of our businesses have become victims of unnecessary security regulations,” and he urged the members of Congress to remember the small business people “who have paid the highest price.” Even though Part 135 operators comply with added restrictions such as the 12-5 Rule, they still are banned along with the rest of GA from some airspace and from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).

In response to a question from Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the non-voting representative from Washington, D.C., Coyne explained that all of GA is “lumped together” and “we are all banned collectively from a lot of airspace.” Whereas airlines are unaffected by restrictions over sporting events, he told her that on-demand charter operators can be affected by flight restrictions over sports stadiums that are near GA airports. “I think this committee has simply got to be the watchdog,” he said.
Even though DCA is actually in Virginia, Norton has been supportive of reopening the facility for GA operations because some of her constituents are affected. Other members of the aviation subcommittee are similarly inclined.

“We need to do everything we can to get Reagan Airport reopened,” said Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), the immediate past chairman of the committee. “I am pleased that NATA filed a petition with the FAA to get [it] reopened.” By not “getting things back to normal like we were supposed to…we’re giving these terrorists a victory.”

But Beth Haskins, president and CEO of Signature Flight Support, noted that decisions on reopening DCA are understood to be controlled by the Capital Region Security Task Force, which is under the Treasury Department. “My attorneys have told me that more than likely, the only solution will be a political solution,” she said.
That caused Norton to retort, “I don’t know how we can give more aid to the airlines without aiding general aviation.”