In one of his more candid public appearances, FAA administrator Michael Huerta recently expressed the belief to pilot-union members that the current debate surrounding the air traffic control system needs to focus more on funding issues, including funding disruptions and the “cross subsidy” involving the airlines and general aviation.
“I believe there has been too much focus on the structure and there has not been enough focus on what is the problem we are trying to solve,” said Huerta in his address to the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association on September 20. Lack of consistency and stability in funding, he said, “is a much bigger problem than who sits on the board of directors.”
House leaders are looking at adding possible measures—including a trucking provision—to gain support for the long-term FAA reauthorization bill that includes the controversial ATC reorganization proposal, Huerta noted. Recent counts still put the bill at 20 to 30 votes shy of House passage, according to the Washington insider publication Politico, reporting Huerta’s estimates.
But there is “some likelihood” the bill could ultimately pass the House, Huerta said. Even so, he added, the Senate does not include any such measure and “I don’t see a path through the Senate” for the ATC proposal. “My biggest fear...is it gets us to where we’ve been before: they can’t agree, so we enter a long period of short-term extensions,” he said.
In the seven years he has served with the agency, the FAA has undergone at least two dozen short-term extensions, been shut down a few times and never begun a fiscal year with a full appropriation in place, he said. “Clearly we can do better than this.”
The aviation trust fund has a $6 billion surplus that the agency can’t access, Huerta added. “The industry should ask, 'What’s the story with all this money?'” he said, noting the money is used to offset federal deficits.
He also cited the “cross subsidy ”of funding involving the nation’s airlines and general aviation. The cost for air traffic services is the same whether those services are delivered to a general aviation aircraft or an airliner. But the “lion’s share of costs is ticket taxes that are charged to airline passengers.” That’s because the country decided years ago “we wanted to ensure open access to the vast majority of users,” he said.
General aviation does pay through excise and fuel taxes, but “they do not come anywhere near covering the costs,” Huerta said, adding, “That’s the kind of debate we need to be having. What are the services we want the FAA to provide and what’s the best way to pay for them?”
Out of that discussion, a structural conversation might emerge, Huerta said, but emphasized, “Being singularly focused on structure without talking about the larger things we are trying to resolve….leads to a lot of people talking past each other. Personally, I think that’s a big part of why we are stuck right now, because we are not having the conversation we need to be having.”
Huerta, however, also expressed the belief that it is unfair to suggest that NextGen is not moving forward, noting progress that has been made despite the continual funding disruptions.