FAA Is Paying Paul, But Maybe Not Peter

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.

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6 Responses to FAA Is Paying Paul, But Maybe Not Peter

  1. Fred Stadler says:

    I hope that today’s Secretary of Transportation appointment doesn’t signal yet another way for private aviation to be “thrown under the bus” (or the train…).

  2. 172 Flyer says:

    say goodbye to getting your airport improvements anytime soon. Just like SS, this money will be used for things other than intended purposes and not replaced this year from some other source. Too bad!

  3. Cary Alburn says:

    One has to wonder how Mr. Foxx’s credentials as a part’time Mayor, a staff person of the House Judiciary Committee, or a part-time bus manufacturer employee qualifies him to run DOT. Of course, credentials seem to mean little these days.

    But back to the issue of robbing Peter to pay Paul, I’m OK with the controllers being put back on the job, but continuing the furloughs of other FAA employees is still robbing Peter but without paying Paul. I can imagine a lot of delays other than those mentioned in your blog, Mac, affecting us little guys. I fly a relatively unusual airplane, a P172D, which is on the same type certificate as the Hawk XP. Many if not most of the parts of 172s of the era fit my airplane–they are the same part. Unfortunately, because so few were made, purveyors of parts and accessories seldom include the P172D on their AMLs, so that it’s often been necessary to get FSDO approval for such mundane and common things as wingtip strobes, landing lights, air cleaners, and the like. So over the 9+ years that I’ve owned the airplane (or she’s owned me), my IA has had to get approval an amazing number of times. He enjoys a good relationship with the FAA folk in Denver, so it’s always happened, but what if they’re not there? Or are overloaded with similar requests? And what if that means that my airplane is grounded until approval has been achieved?

    I’m not sure if I’m ready to join the paranoid statements others have made that the current administration is out to destroy GA, but sometimes it sure seems like it, doesn’t it? “Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you!”

    Cary

  4. Jim says:

    As soon as you start paying operating expenses with money earmarked for capital projects, you have launched yourself down the slippery slope. In time, you will still have the operating expense, and will no longer have the capital. Then what?

    On a survival, let’s stay alive for a few more days, emergency basis – this strategy makes sense. As a regular method of doing business – it won’t do anything but kick the can down the road a few miles, and in the end make the same small problems bigger.

    There is no reason that a good number of those towers could not close, and close safely. Re-opening the entire bunch is not a solution. The problem persists.

    What is next? Whatever doesn’t generate a lot of votes, and therefore doesn’t expose the politicians butts. Which is what they really care about.

  5. Barry says:

    You need to remember that the sequester is only against the INCREASE in spending of the gov’t. I’m sure that the portion of sequster that amounts to the FAA’s reduction can easly be taken up by waste in the system … but our Executive Branch has decided that the adoption of this sequester (that he signed into law) will be taken out of the skins of the people asking for the gov’t to temper their spending habits.

    It is typical political horse (*&% created to “adjust” the minds of the public to the incumbent thinking.

    I agree with Jim. There are a few towers that could be closed for good and some other areas that could be reduced without creating a problem for the public … but of course that would not “educate” the taxpayer not to push spending reductions upon the system.

    • Jeff Boatright says:

      You mean the sequester that at the time Republican leadership (e.g., Boehner et al.) touted as being over 95% of what they wanted, and a big loss for the President – you mean that sequester?

      Just checking.

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