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"FAA on Congress' radar as air travelers await fallout"

Sunday, March 18, 2007

FAA on Congress' radar as air travelers await fallout
By Philip Dine
The St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch

WASHINGTON - Fast-growing legions of air travelers could soon be feeling the
impact of a critical task of Congress this session: setting funding and
priorities for the Federal Aviation Administration for the next four years.

The head of the agency is warning that failure to do the task promptly could
cause the U.S. to lose its lead in aviation, while some in Congress fear a
major blow to the economy and even safety if the changes aren't made

Congressional critics of the FAA proposal for a new funding system to steer
some of the burden away from airline passengers fear a revenue shortfall and
a disproportionate impact on small-business people, commuters and
recreational users.

The debate takes on added urgency as air travel across the country is
rapidly rising after the post-Sept. 11 slowdown. Air travel, currently at
740 million U.S. passengers a year, is on a path to increase to 1 billion by
2015 - and to 2 billion 10 years later.

"It's like adding two Lambert Fields to the system each year," said FAA
spokesman Hank Price, referring to the St. Louis airport. "Last year was the
largest ever for delays, so we're already seeing a critical mass coming up

The agency must have enough air traffic controllers and aircraft safety
inspectors, and the right policies, to achieve efficiency and safety as the
skies get more and more full. Light jets, unmanned vehicles and other
technological advances will further add to the congestion.

To pay for needed staffing and equipment, the Bush administration proposes
to drastically shift the way the FAA's $14 billion budget is funded, partly
by reallocating costs from airline passengers - now taxed on the tickets
they buy - to user fees for those involved in the aviation system, including
corporate jets and recreational fliers.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey says cost-based user fees are the best way
to meet rising demand because they allow the government to assess charges
based on actual expenses.

But Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., who will be the key player in the House as
the process unfolds over the next several months, isn't so sure. The current
system works well, and the administration's own financial figures indicate
that the new plan would reduce revenue by $600 million, he says. The FAA
denies there would be a shortfall.

"I question the wisdom of moving to a new financing system that will not
generate as much revenue as the current tax structure when we clearly need
to make critical investments now to ensure that our nation's air traffic
control infrastructure is robust for the future," Costello said.

He cites potential danger signals involving maintenance of aircraft and
fatigue among air traffic controllers.

The battle lines were drawn at the initial hearing last week, when several
members of the House aviation panel, which Costello chairs, lit into Blakey
after she urged them to approve the financing plan or cause major projects
such as airport runways to face delays - and the United States to fall back
in aviation standards and technology.

"I would beg you, please do not miss the deadlines," she said, speaking of
the September expiration of the law allowing the agency to operate. "We need
to take bold action, or we will see world leadership begin to slip through
U.S. hands. We risk seeing other countries move ahead while we argue about
who will pick up the tab."

The panel's ranking Republican, Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin, agreed that
unless Congress acted quickly, flight delays and cancellations would mean
"the U.S. economy would suffer to the tune of $30 billion annually."

But legislators from both parties criticized plans to shift some costs from
commercial passengers to those who operate small planes, and the possible
privatizing of some of the FAA's internal business functions.

"My state has two urban hubs, but it has a lot of rural areas in between,"
said Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo. "General aviation is critical to those
communities, to recreational fliers as well as to small businesses. This
needs to be addressed in a more equitable way."

Blakely responded that general aviation accounted for 16 percent of the
costs of the aviation system but pays for only 3 percent of the cost.
"Passengers on commercial planes shouldn't pick up the tab so a CEO can fly
across the country on a private jet," she said.

But several legislators countered that typical users of general aviation are
small-business people, commuters or recreational users. Rep. Vernon Ehlers,
R-Mich., called the proposal "dead on arrival."

Some legislators fear the FAA's funding proposal would give the agency more
control over its revenue by letting it set fee sizes and cut the power of

One goal most agree on is upgrading the current air traffic control system
from ground-based radar to satellite. Boeing's St. Louis-based Phantom Works
has a $48 million contract to help develop software for the new system.

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