Aviation may be included in infrastructure bank

 - June 2, 2009, 7:00 AM

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 8th Annual Aviation Summit on April 29 that he is open to discussions to include aviation in the Obama Administration’s proposal to create a multibillion-dollar transportation infrastructure bank, but claimed that he had not been approached with the idea.

Less than 24 hours later, in a speech before a joint luncheon of the Washington Aero Club and New York City’s Wings Club, LaHood modified that statement, saying he expects the White House to “rally some dollars” in response to a request from airline industry officials for assistance in equipping their aircraft with NextGen avionics. The request came after a meeting with Obama economic advisor Lawrence Summers.

Most discussion of the infrastructure bank has centered on $8 billion for high-speed rail and using the bank for highways, bridges, transit and rail. But LaHood said the airline officials “really made an impact” on Summers.

“I believe you are going to see some movement here on the part of the Administration, on the part of Larry Summers and certainly from our point of view, to see if we can really rally some dollars and get some of these dollars that are necessary to get us to NextGen,” LaHood said.

The DOT secretary has often stated that NextGen will be the FAA’s top priority in the Obama Administration. Following his speech at the aviation summit, he also said the White House would work with Congress to get the best possible FAA reauthorization and confirmation of Randy Babbitt as FAA Administrator for a five-year term.

Aviation groups want a four-year funding package that will allow NextGen to move forward quickly, but some lawmakers have expressed interest in developing a two-year package.

In a rare show of unity late last year, the airlines joined general aviation and others in lobbying Congress for a $4 billion stimulus package that could jumpstart NextGen and provide many of its benefits during President Obama’s first term. Included in the group were NBAA, the National Air Transportation Association, AOPA and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

Under the proposal, the money would have been used to make grants for 100 percent of the costs to retrofit GA and commercial aircraft with NextGen equipment such as onboard avionics, electronic flight bags, cockpit displays, surface moving maps and software upgrades.

In the end, the industry got nothing. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, told the industry, “You failed to make your case.”

At a panel discussion during the Chamber’s aviation summit, American Airlines senior v-p of government affairs Will Ris noted, “We need to tell our story more effectively.”

The industry needs to work together to accomplish this goal. In fact, Air Transport Association (ATA) president and CEO James May said during the panel discussion that “we are collectively singing from the same hymn book,” while William DeCota, aviation director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, added that “we have a coalescing of people with a common message.”

Noting that “a lot of our wounds are self-inflicted,” American’s Ris observed there is currently a sort of “anti-travel bias.” Conferences are evil and travel is evil, he said. “We need to push back on that,” Ris continued. “Business aviation is not evil. This is essentially about mobility. We are all part of the same environment.”

Later, former acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell harked back to a high-speed rail event held earlier in April, when Obama said there would be no long waits on tarmacs, no lost luggage and no taking off your shoes with high-speed rail.

“Certainly I support high-speed rail in certain locations,” Sturgell said. “This is not an either/or proposition in terms of rail and aviation. But high-speed rail is years or decades away.”

Sturgell asked the audience to imagine a world without aviation, not being able to transport accident victims by helicopter or losing the Corporate Angel Network, where business aviation and others fly–for free–people with life-threatening illnesses to cities where they can receive treatment.

Imagine the impact to disaster relief cases such as in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he said, where the military, airlines, GA and the FAA moved tens of thousands of people to safety.

“Imagine losing the ability to conduct face-to-face business meetings or the ability simply to travel home on a moment’s notice,” said Sturgell. “Imagine the jobs that would disappear from an industry where we are world leaders, providing a $50 billion trade surplus.”

Toward a Realistic Emissions Plan

The consequences of a “cap-and-trade” emissions program for the aviation industry was one of the subjects of the Chamber of Commerce’s 8th Annual Aviation Summit. As climate change legislation heats up in Congress, the Chamber emphasized that any cap-and-trade program will only harm the aviation industry, which has strived to increase fuel efficiency, the development of lighter aircraft and creation of greenhouse gas-reducing engines.

“We must seek energy policies that do not disrupt key industries, but promote their ability to lead in the research and development of clean, green technologies,” said Carol Hallett, an attorney at the U.S. Chamber and a former head of the ATA. “This means allowing the aviation industry to continue to invest in new aircraft, equipment, alternative fuels and innovative technologies that will eliminate waste, reduce travel times and allow the industry to operate as efficiently as possible.”