FAA nets small increase in 2003 budget funding

 - March 25, 2008, 7:14 AM

The President’s Budget of the United States has usually been delivered by the Government Printing Office to Congress bound in a sober, solid navy. This year’s, issued February 4, was literally wrapped in the flag. The red, white and blue motif was repeated in the United States Department of Transportation Fiscal Year 2003 Budget in Brief, which tossed in photos of airplanes and ships in flag livery or overflying flag masts. The message is that any challenges to such a budget would be seen as unpatriotic.

Yet the DOT’s proposed budget is simply that: proposed. Its mind-numbing complexity makes congressional dispute likely through this month. If it is enacted as written, DOT spending would grow by 8 percent to $59.3 billion. The FAA is ceremonially at center stage but the agency would receive only a 1.7-percent increase, to $14.012 billion. Most of the DOT’s increase instead funds the largest raise in the history of the Coast Guard, to $7.1 billion, and the first full year of the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA), at $4.8 billion.

Expenses for civil aviation security paid by the FAA in fiscal 2002 would be assumed by the TSA by year-end. Given that shift, the FAA lost 1.6 percent of its funding, for a net increase of 1.7 percent.

Next year the TSA will collect $2.2 billion of its $4.8 billion budget from passenger and air carrier fees, authorized by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act to fund 30,000 airport security personnel and screeners; explosives detection systems that must scan all checked baggage as of December 31; and an expanded federal air marshal program.

A central FAA goal is a performance-based organization (PBO) by next year for air traffic services and capital investments, run by a COO. The FAA’s summary budget predicts “a businesslike aviation environment,” with most details to be determined. But rather than actual headcount, as in the private sector, FAA budgets full-time equivalent employment (FTE). The FAA requested 50,044 FTEs for fiscal year 2003; 1,281 more than actual.

The DOT also set new performance targets for fiscal 2003, some at apparent odds. The agency wants airport efficiency, meaning the rate of arrivals and departures divided by existing maximum capacity, crunched to 95.4 percent. Meanwhile, it wants to reduce the number of residents exposed to “significant aircraft noise levels” from its 1999 level of 585,000 to 400,000.

Of the President’s budgeted $6 billion for ATC and related maintenance, $24 million would increase system capacity through efforts such as the spring/summer 2003 initiative and the Operational Evolution Plan, while $867 million is directed to regulation and certification.

The 2003 budget raises safety programs to $290 million, including improved weather sensing and reporting, better flight service for general aviation and new databases for safety information. Of that figure, $5 million is directed to runway safety, reflecting data from fiscal 2001: runway incursions were up 4.7 percent, though what the FAA calls “more serious categories of incursions” were down 20.9 percent.

The portion of the FAA’s budget under mobility includes replacement of older radars, new terminal control automation, Free Flight and oceanic automation, which together are funded at $1.7 billion. The terminal business unit, the budget’s collective term for SIDs and STARs programs, is up markedly to $692 million.

With Secretary Mineta recovering from hip-replacement surgery in late January, the budget conference was led by DOT deputy secretary Michael Jackson, who made multiple apologies for the budget’s impenetrability. FAA Administrator Jane Garvey sat front row with heads of a dozen DOT administrations ranging from Federal Motor Carrier Safety to the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. During limited remarks, Jackson singled out Garvey for praise, citing only “enormous accomplishments.”

Jackson deflected all but a few questions to avoid “entering a zone of wonkdom,” and to release the media hounds to the various administrators. Garvey was largely spared inquiry, in favor of attention to the new TSA. An accounting debacle early last month also diverted media interest in the 2003 budget from aviation.

Days before, the Department of the Treasury had acknowledged an error of $600 million in calculating the highway trust funds, leaving $8.5 billion rather than $9.1 billion, leading trade groups and state officials to bemoan the shortfall. The General Accounting Office planned a review, which is expected to last through this month.