The bill that Congress passed with unbelievable bipartisan support late last week directs the FAA to take $253 million from the airport improvement fund to avoid furloughing controllers for the rest of the government’s fiscal year that ends on September 30. That should be enough money to also keep many, even most, of the contract control towers that had been facing closure operating until September.
This is a classic Washington compromise. The budget hawks get the ATC system back up to full speed and the delays of last week should end quickly, but the reduced FAA budget did not increase one cent. The other side didn’t get the larger deal on spending and taxes it wants, but it did get to show the public that it can do something to solve a high profile problem.
What’s left out of this compromise is operation of the rest of the FAA, and the long term future of our airports.
The new law that permits the FAA to move money from one budget to another within the agency to fund controller pay—something the sequestration law that took effect at the end of March forbids—does nothing to end the furloughs of FAA staff who are not controllers. The people who administer the certification of pilots, airplanes, modifications, airports, airways and approaches, and so on are still going to be off the job about 10 percent of the time.
So what, you say? Well, people who aren’t on the job can’t move any project or request that needs FAA certification forward so almost everything is likely to be delayed just as a 10 percent reduction in controller work force brought on large delays that rippled through the ATC system.
Manufacturers big and small will be among the first to feel the delays as there will be fewer FAA inspectors working to approve a new part, a new STC, a new airplane, or new avionics equipment.
Holders of operating certificates to fly charter, run an approved maintenance facility, or even some flight schools can expect all the required paperwork and inspections to take longer. And individual pilots who are waiting for approvals for a special issuance medical, for example, will undoubtedly feel the delay caused by the furloughs.
A longer term concern is the fact that operating expenses are being taken from a capital budget where the funds had been reserved only for physical airport or airway improvements. The money being shifted from the airport trust fund to pay controllers over the next several months wasn’t yet designated for specific projects so airport improvements already in the works won’t change. But the $253 million being spent on controller salaries was collected from specific taxes on aviation fuel and airline tickets to be spent only on airports and infrastructure. And that money won’t be replaced.
The FAA’s budget has long been a political football. The agency operated for six years on “continuing resolutions” where Congress approved temporary funding for only months at a time. However, last year Congress finally passed a bill funding the FAA through 2015. Congress waged a year-long battle over the bill, and it even took a two-week partial shutdown of the FAA to finally get approval for the longer term funding to pay for the transition to the satellite-based NextGen system and for normal operations.
All of us in aviation cheered the passage of a real multi-year FAA budget and hoped it would, for at least a few years, end the partisan squabbling. That lasted just over a year and now the FAA and all of us in aviation are tossed back into budget limbo.
If you ever wondered how important the airline system is to this country you got the answer last week. It took only about five days of controller furloughs and resultant delays to get a group in Congress who can’t agree on the time of day to rush through a bill to band-aid the system.
I wish general aviation had the same clout as angry passengers waiting at an airport, but we don’t. That means all of us must now be doubly vigilant to make sure private aviation is not thrown under the bus in the stampede to cut the FAA budget without causing airline delays.
We all fly the airlines at least some and don’t want to be delayed. But we also don’t want tax money specifically collected to maintain and improve all airports, including GA airports, spent for operations instead of infrastructure.