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.