July 28, 2011
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt made a quick visit to EAA AirVenture on Thursday and spent an hour talking with the Oshkosh crowds in the show's big forum pavilion. He gave a short update on FAA issues, answered a list of questions from EAA president Rod Hightower, and fielded a few queries from the audience. He said he was "deeply troubled" by the failure of Congress to extend a funding bill, forcing the agency to furlough 4,000 workers. "I had no choice," he said. "I personally regret having to take this action." Getting those workers back on the job is his number-one priority right now, he said. Regarding the future of avgas, Babbitt said, "I think we are on track to come up with workable solutions. But is there a solution that (1) is a drop-in solution, and (2) is affordable? I hope so, but I don't have clarity on it."
Asked about the cost for general aviation pilots to install the equipment required to operate in the NextGen system -- Hightower said airplane owners are looking at a $15,000 investment or more -- Babbitt said he expects the prices to come down as the market expands. "By 2020, you need ADS-B-out, which has a lot of advantages for pilots," he said. Pilots will save money by getting traffic and weather data for free, he said, and those savings on subscription fees will go a long way to offset the cost of equipment. Also, he said pilots will pay those costs incrementally as they upgrade to new equipment over the next nine years, since that new equipment will have the required capabilities. The system provides a lot of value for GA pilots, he said. "Once you get it and use it, you're not going back," he said.
Hightower also asked for Babbitt's views on the FAA's change of policy regarding protecting the identity of private aircraft owners, known as the BARR program. Babbitt said the change resulted after the agency had to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request and decided there was no good reason the data shouldn't be public. "This is one of those cases where we need to distinguish between a right and a privilege," Babbitt said. Flying in the national airspace system qualifies as a privilege, he said.
He added that he was sorry the FAA doesn't have as robust a presence at AirVenture this year as it usually does. "This is not business as usual -- I need all hands on deck in Washington," he said. "Since 2007, FAA funding has been extended 20 times," he said. The short-term extensions make it difficult for the agency to manage long-term projects. "This is not the way to run an aviation system," Babbitt said. He added that he appreciates the efforts of EAA, AOPA, and other GA advocacy groups that have been helping to lobby for secure funding for the FAA.
In answer to a question from the audience, Babbitt said he wasn't aware of any plan in the works to replace airman medicals with a driver's license. He also didn't seem too concerned about user fees, saying the current administration doesn't support that funding mechanism for the FAA. EAA had announced that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would also be visiting the show on Thursday, but he had to cancel. "He's busy at the White House today," an FAA spokesman told AVweb. Babbitt also had to return to Washington shortly after his forum and was not available for further interviews.