U.S. aerospace health in jeopardy

 - May 8, 2008, 10:24 AM

The Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry vowed to keep the nine recommendations released in its November 18 final report from languishing somewhere within the vast federal bureaucracy. “We believe that people in the next century should see aerospace as something where anyone or anything can go anywhere, at any time,” said commission chairman Robert Walker. “That’s what we used as a framework in which to try to address how you get to that point.”

While the former congressman said the framework includes both commercial and military endeavors, vice chairman F. Whitten Peters opined that perhaps the most difficult issue the commission faced was how to get the federal government’s role unified across the executive and legislative branches so that programs provide for all of the core competencies needed in the civilian and military sectors.

“If there is any takeaway from this report,” said Peters, “it is the need for urgent action and the need for a unified federal program in aviation that would coordinate what the executive branch agencies are doing and finding a way for Congress to review it.”

The aerospace commission began its work by requesting a sectoral budget, in essence a method to take a look at how much money the federal government allocates across the entire aerospace spectrum, for both civil and military purposes.

“We do believe that [with] more horizontal decision-making, you [can] really prioritize the use of this money,” said Walker. “The fact is that you could get some invested in the things we regard as absolutely essential. Funds may not be going there now, but rather could be going to lesser kinds of prioritization or being expended in many cases in similar ways without any knowledge of what others are doing.”

Calling an increase in research and development absolutely essential, he said current increases in research spending by the Defense Department need to be emulated by NASA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the FAA.

To do a new air traffic management system, Walker said, the FAA is going to invest in new research. “We are looking for priorities, and part of our urgent call here is to identify areas that have been ignored and now need to be funded.”

In its executive summary, the commission stressed that the U.S. aerospace industry has consolidated to a handful of players–from what was once more than 70 suppliers in 1980 down to five prime contractors today. And not all of these surviving companies are in strong business health.

Further, the U.S. airline industry, which relies on aerospace products, finds its very existence threatened, having absorbed record losses of more than $7 billion last year and facing potentially greater losses this year.

The workforce, meanwhile, is aging rapidly, with 26 percent of the employees eligible to take retirement within the next five years, while at the same time the U.S. primary education system is failing to equip U.S. students with the proper math, science and technological skills needed to advance the U.S. aerospace industry. Commissioner Tillie Fowler described it as “intellectual and industrial disarmament.”

The commission, established more than a year ago by an act of Congress signed by President Bush, said its “urgent purpose is to call attention to how the critical underpinnings of this nation’s aerospace industry are showing signs of faltering–and to raise the alarm.”

The 300-page final report is divided into chapters that include industry vision, national security, air transportation, space, government reform, trade business, the workforce and research and innovation.

Stressing that a new highly automated ATM system must allow everything from airlines to unpiloted vehicles to operate from thousands of communities based on market size and demand, the group said the ATM system also must work within a national air defense system and enable military and commercial aircraft to fly around the world in peacetime and in war.

The commission already sent copies of the report to Capitol Hill, and Walker planned to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney late last month to deliver the White House copy. “We expect the Administration to respond favorably,” he said.

Walker said the commission had already done “a lot of consultation” with Congress
and inside the White House as it proceeded in its deliberations, and he expressed confidence that several of its recommendations will be picked up “fairly quickly.”

While he hopes that signs of progress will be evident within the next few weeks or months, Walker said the commission is considering a one-year review of progress. If that fails to materialize, some members of Congress have expressed willingness to call in the General Accounting Office.