Future FAA Programs In Doubt

The closing of nearly 200 control towers has been getting the attention as the FAA cuts spending to comply with the federal budget sequestration. But other spending cuts that are coming raise even more troubling questions about the FAA’s future programs that will affect all of us who fly in one way or the other.

The FAA NextGen program is already years into development and mandated spending cuts will slow or even derail its completion. The core of NextGen is a move to satellite-based air traffic control to replace radar. The ADS-B equipment required to be installed by 2020 in nearly all aircraft is a key component of NextGen and many airplane owners are already installing equipment to meet that demand. But will there be a NextGen up and working by 2020? Not unless the development budgets are restored.

You may ask who cares about NextGen. Actually, all pilots and airplane owners do. The FAA’s current position with NextGen is like having one foot on the boat and the other on the dock. It is committed to deploying NextGen with that system’s advanced traffic separation and navigation and is gradually retiring the current equipment. If NextGen is delayed by the funding cuts the radars, navaids and communications network in use now will not have been maintained for the indefinite future. The transition to NextGen is already underway and a delay will leave gaps where we don’t have the reliability from the existing system or the advantages of the new system.

Another likely victim of FAA spending cuts is the transition to a lead-free avgas. Industry and the FAA have formed a partnership to identify and test candidate fuels to determine which formula will be least disruptive in the move away from lead. The FAA’s part of the program demands lots of dough to establish testing methods to create a lead-free avgas specification. If even part of that funding is cut out of the budget the process slows down, probably way down.

Even when the best possible unleaded avgas formula is identified every certified airplane-engine combination will need to be recertified to use that fuel. And only the FAA can do that. Even in some airplanes that will not need modification to burn a new fuel, there still must be certification approval, and that requires manpower and that costs money. And many, perhaps most, airplanes will need to be modified at least to a small extent to use an unleaded fuel, even if that modification is “only” new operating limitations, and perhaps performance data changes.

Even homebuilders are likely to feel FAA budget cuts in the form of delays. Most E-AB are signed off by an FAA designee (DAR) instead of an FAA employee. But the DARs are certified by FAA staff, and must be recertified on a routine schedule and that requires FAA manpower. The result will be longer waits for approvals of all types.

You may think we don’t need an FAA, or we need less FAA. But that’s not the question here. What the across the board spending cuts do is remove manpower and resources but do not eliminate any rules or procedures. So just as TSA lines to board an airliner grow longer, or the wait to clear customs increases, our personal flying will be made more complicated and cumbersome by the FAA budget cuts.

Closing cost effective privatized contract control towers was the first and in some ways easiest way for the FAA to cut its budget. The coming cuts won’t have the drama or headline grabbing attention of the tower closings, but they will make our lives as pilots and airplane owners more complicated, probably more costly, and certainly less predictable. All aspects of general aviation will carry an unfair share of the impact of FAA funding cuts.


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18 Responses to Future FAA Programs In Doubt

  1. Stu Baxter says:

    The fuels are here for the most part. Only the FAA can waste millions and years to get done what could be done in the next six months.

    • Mac says:

      Sorry, Stu. That’s a myth. There is no unleaded avgas that has been tested across the entire range of performance in all altitudes, temperatures, fuel system materials, engine types and so on. And even when that is done, how do we know what happens to a candidate fuel when it sits in storage for six months or a year as avgas sometimes does? And what happens when a new fuel is mixed with 100ll? We don’t know. But that will be necessary because fuel replacement will take time and the fuels must be compatible.
      Identifying an unleaded avgas that is least disruptive and most cost effective is a huge job and the work has barely begun.
      Mac Mc

  2. Eric7 says:

    Good analysis Mac. Industry-specific versions of your column are appearing in every business publication I read. Anyone who thinks sequestration is not going to slam the brakes on the economy is dreaming.

  3. Stu Baxter says:

    I am sorry to get back on here so soon but the vast majority of engines can burn no lead no ethanol fuel today that could be made available immediately. Only if we are trying to get the one shoe fits all fix is there a huge amount of work to be done. Almost every four and six cylinder normally aspirated engine out there will run on mogas. All we need to do is get rid of the ethanol, something that should happen anyway except for more government stupidity.

    • Jim Oeffinger says:

      Yes, my Tri-Pacer will run on auto gas, NO, my Turbo 210 will NOT.

      • Stu Baxter says:

        My post said normally aspirated. One of the major reasons that flying is curtailed is the high price of fuel. That could be fixed quickly by introducing a non-ethanol fuel into the system.

  4. Gary says:

    The FAA and GA pilots will save a lot of time and money if they would just PASS the medical exemption petition as written. 95% of the 16,000 responses to this petition were favorable! Let’s get it done…

  5. SkyGuy says:

    No Change is good.

  6. Brent says:

    Too bad the already sluggish GA market has to slow down even more, since sequestration will accomplish that very well, thank you. I am wondering however, how old I will be if and when GA improves. It pushes me out of the market, I am afraid to say.

  7. Steve Sharpe says:

    Unleaded 91 octane avgas is already quite widely available in the UK, approved for many engines. It’s also a bit cheaper than 100LL, which is a bonus where a litre of 100LL works out at about £2 (approx $11.30 per US Gallon – so think yourselves lucky!). Unlike Mogas it doesn’t seem to have usage restrictions in the engines it’s approved for, a bonus being it’s better for them in terms of lead fouling and sticking valves. Maybe the FAA could look to Europe for inspiration for a change. Tough on you guys that politics once again makes life uncertain for the ordinary man in the street – or in the air!

  8. Rodney says:

    Without getting into it about the AvGas debate what will inevitably happen despite the doom and gloom projections is people will adjust. Whether NexGen comes today or tomorrow planes will not fall from the sky. Pilots and agencies will adjust their priorities and drop those things that are irrelevant. Stopping the 3rd class medical could be on the agenda, looking at the results of using Mogas in airplanes and allowing variations in its formulation for use in aviation at a slightly lower octane than 100LL instead of the usual testing to death for years would be one solution. Whatever happens we will adjust and move on.

  9. E. Evans says:

    What a farce about sequestration! My uncle was a LTC in the USCG at Air Station LAX and he put together so-called budgets that had built in cost increases every year and every year they didn’t get what they wanted, and some would cry “you’re cutting our budget by 10%!” It is all political smoke and mirrors, and yes people are getting “hurt”, but it our government, run by our money. Maybe, just maybe, we can’t have it all instead of taxing ourselves into a Greek pit of insolvency!

  10. Jeff Land says:

    Same old same old.

    We are all for budget cuts. Just as long as it is someone else’s budget that gets cut.

    No cuts for you, no cuts for me. Cuts for the fellow behind the tree.

    Is this country doomed? Those that say if we keep spending, then yes. Those that say if there are any cuts at all, then yes.

    The way the US Government opeerates makes Bernie Madoff looks like a rank Ponzi scheme amateur. Our economy seems to be built on a house of cards resting on a bed of sand. And, the tide is rising.

  11. Jeff Land says:

    Oh, we have met the enemy.

    He are us.

  12. Greg Miller says:

    I, and many other on-field pilots welcome the shutdown of our tower. I does hurt our friends who work the tower. However our airport has never needed a tower, except to assist IRFs (here that means ice, most don’t go), and to provide a tower for students to meet a requirement. On the fuel issue, I have flown 23 years on premium car gas with no deleterious results. My state even refunds about $0.19/gal fuel tax, since it’s not used on highways (Idaho Tax Form 75), and the Lycoming O-360 is actually certified for 91/96 UL, avgas (Europe formulation), which I believe is virtually identical to premium car gas. On NextGen, I say to FAA, no–not wanted or needed by most single-engine GA. Having read the plans, and attended UAV related FAA conferences, I believe NextGen is designed to make money for avionics manufactures, enable UAVs, and to enable NorthCOM to better surveill us, and at best solve a problem that does not exist.

  13. Michael Sheridan says:

    Thanks for lending some sanity to a number of the anti=government nuts on this thread, All these FAA-Can-Do-No-Good freaks are going to get exactly what they deserve: less safety. They are so isolated and out of mainstream thinking on Nextgen/ADS that they have no credibility. I hope the next time they fly into uncontrolled, busy airspace (if any of them do, or can) they have to sweat it out.

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