Budget cuts could delay NextGen transition

 - February 27, 2011, 8:15 AM

For those who manage the nation’s airports, the message coming out of their annual Washington Legislative Conference last month was one of gloom and doom.

Speakers warned attendees that House Republicans’ pledge to slash more than $32 billion from agency budgets over the next few months could affect everything from NextGen ATC modernization to the Essential Air Service (EAS) program.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, said the agenda some legislators are now advocating to simply cut programs across the board “will hit airports across the country hard and devastate important infrastructure programs like the Airport Improvement Program [AIP].”

She pointed out to members of the American Association of Airport Executives and the Airports Council International North America that Congress has not yet passed a final budget for the current fiscal year (FY2011), which started four months ago. “We are operating, as you all well know, on a short-term continuing resolution, which really limits the ability of agencies and organizations to plan long term,” she said. “It is no way to run a country.”

Murray acknowledged there have been no increases to the AIP in several years and she predicted that it will be a challenge just to maintain the current levels. “I really worry about cuts in the budget for the [FAA] and how they will affect our agency’s ability to invest in its own facilities and equipment, air traffic control towers, lighting systems and navigational aids that are so important,” she said.

NextGen ‘Gaining Momentum’

She further cautioned that severe cuts in the FAA budget put the schedule for NextGen efforts at risk and begs the question, “How much longer will we have to wait before we see all of the investments made in NextGen pay off, in terms of better efficiency, increased capacity and cleaner air? And how much more taxpayer money will we have to spend over the life of NextGen to pay the cost of these delays?”   

House and Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee staff members said that new initiatives are “going to be quite hard to do,” and cutting budgets back to 2008 figures as the GOP has promised could affect programs such as NextGen and EAS.

But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that NextGen “is happening and gaining momentum”–with ADS-B capability expanding rapidly. “Our goal is to create a unified vision of our airports and airspace–a single screen that ensures America’s pilots, air traffic controllers and aviation safety professionals can all see the same thing at the same time,” he added.

LaHood said the tax cut bill that President Obama signed into law before Christmas “means there is no better time to invest in airports, aircraft and air traffic technology–to enjoy minimum costs and maximum long-term benefits.” Two days later the FAA agreed to pay JetBlue $4.2 million to install ADS-B avionics in up to 35 of its Airbus A320s as a pilot project.

The DOT secretary said that getting an FAA reauthorization bill is “absolutely critical” and he noted that his fingers are crossed “that by spring there will be an FAA bill signed by the President.”

According to Jim Coon, staff director of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that body wants to get the whole FAA reauthorization bill completed by March 31. Both the House and the Senate are looking at multi-year legislation, the House a four-year bill and the Senate a two-year bill.

LaHood recalled that the DOT launched the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee last spring, and the diverse group of policy experts (one of them from the business aviation industry) made 23 recommendations on Transportation Department policy and regulations.

The DOT is closely reviewing the ideas, he said, and working to implement them quickly and responsibly. He promised to appoint someone directly accountable to him to make sure we’re getting this done in the right way.

“It means there is no better time to plan, invest and build our future competitiveness,” LaHood said. “And it’s no coincidence that we’re doing the same thing within the department.”