Interview with David Traynham, Executive Director of NCARC
INTERVIEW. The National Civil Aviation Review Commission (NCARC) was established by Congress in 1996 as part of the FAA reauthorizing legislation passed in 1996. The Commission's responsibilities are to "study safety, airport capital needs and ways to meet those needs, and FAA operational needs and ways to meet those needs." In essence, the NCARC's job is to recommend to Congress how the funding needs of the FAA, aviation safety and the nation's airports should be met in the future. There is enormous controversy about whether "the system" should be funded by "user fees" (which the Clinton Administration is pushing aggressively) or whether it should continue to be funded through excise taxes on aviation fuel, air freight and airline tickets (strongly favored by business and private aviation groups). NCARC's top staffer David Traynham responds to questions about the composition and game-plan of the Commission in this exclusive one-on-one interview by AVweb's man-on-the-hill Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside.
AVweb: David, first of all, thank you for taking some time to talk with AVweb. I don't have to tell you that there was a lot of initial concern about the composition of the Commission. There are those who feel that general aviation was omitted and that perhaps other segments of the aviation industry were omitted in the naming of the Commission. How would you respond to that?
Traynham: It is clear that a number of general aviation trade groups are upset with the composition of the Commission — not so much with the people who are on it but with people who are not on it. We do have a woman from a fixed-based operation in South Dakota, Linda Barker, who views herself as coming from the general aviation industry. I don't think the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association or the National Air Transport Association — while they are happy she's on there, she does not come with broad political support from the general aviation community, like someone would coming from a trade association.
I have met more with the representatives from the general aviation community since the Commission was up and running than I have with the Commissioners and I will continue to do that. My view is that although they are not formally named on the Commission or part of the Commission, if we are to develop a consensus on how to finance the aviation programs of the country in the future, they have to be part of that consensus. They may not be part of the Commission but they need to be part of the consensus. So, I'm talking with their representatives, I know them all, I consider them friends, and I will continue talking with them.
AVweb: Your background is obviously Congressional in nature. You have been involved in aviation policy issues for some time. Tell me when you first went to Capitol Hill.
Traynham: It was in the summer of 1979, I went to the House Aviation Subcommittee, which is where I've been virtually the whole time since, except for about nine months on the Coast Guard Subcommittee in 1995.
AVweb: So, you know the players, you know the people. How much of a hand did you have in writing the actual statute that developed the NCARC?
Traynham: Well, I was involved in the House-Senate conference that agreed to it. The actual language that sets up the Commission was largely a product of the Senate, on the financing side. The House had a provision which dealt with safety issues and those were merged in conference. But the part that set up the Commission was largely a product that came from Senator [John] McCain [(R-AZ)] and Senator [Wendell] Ford [(D-KY)].
AVweb: In that statute, there are a number of specific timelines for various work product and recommendations to Congress. What are your intentions on meeting those deadlines?
Traynham: We will meet those deadlines. The final report on financing has to be to Congress by September 28, according to the statute, based on when the [Coopers and Lybrand] independent financial assessment was completed. [Former Representative] Norm Mineta, who chairs the Commission, wants to have the Commission's financing recommendations folded into the [Congressional budget] reconciliation bill that will be developed this summer. In order to accomplish that, I think we will pretty much have to submit a report on the financing piece by Labor Day — during August. So, that's the deadline we're operating under. If you back up the timeframe of when DOT will have the opportunity to review the report on the financing piece, I think the Commission needs to pretty well come to some decisions by mid-July.
The safety piece, there's a statutory deadline that we report by October 7, which is the one-year anniversary of when the law setting up the Commission was enacted. We're doing the financing piece and the safety piece in sequence. We will be doing the financing work first, and that will continue through August. Then we will start running parallel on the safety issues around July 1.
AVweb: Going back to the Commission's composition for a moment, and forgetting the general aviation community's questions and protests, there are those who have commented that the Commission is almost exclusively composed of airline and airport people. In fact, some of the Commissioners supposedly are lobbyists for airline and airport interests. Obviously, that raises some questions of whether or not the Commission can be truly impartial and whether or not it can avoid bringing in parochial interests in support of the other "lives" these people have. How would you respond to that?
Traynham: The people who have been appointed to the Commission, to some extent, they were expected to bring their parochial interests to the table. The Commission's purpose is to have a negotiation to put some issues to bed — to bring closure to these issues. So, the idea behind the appointments was to have some people who can speak for Delta Air Lines — Scott Yohe, Senior Vice President for Delta is a Commissioner. So it's not really designed to be an objective sort of Commission. It's a Commission that's to negotiate some issues that have vexed policy-makers for some time — to bring a recommendation back. So it's meant to be a kind of politically-negotiated settlement of some issues. I don't think we're expecting the representative who also works for UPS to leave his UPS hat at the door, so to speak. There are interests that need to work out some compromises with each other. So, I don't see a problem with having those varied interests.
Now, we do have some people who have non-aviation backgrounds on the Commission, as well. They bring financing and budgeting experience, in some cases. So, it's a mixture of people with different backgrounds. I think that they people who were selected, even though they may come from a particular company or trade association or something like that, they are individuals who do have some ability to build consensus on issues, to work out compromises and, when need be, they can take a broader view than their particular interest. I don't think anyone expects them to argue positions that are contrary to where they came from. I think what people are looking for is that they will recognize that, at times, you have to make a compromise to move forward. The individuals — the personalities — who were chosen, certainly have the capability of doing that.
AVweb: The Commission's ultimate recommendations - will they be consensus-driven or will they be like a Supreme Court decision where you have a majority opinion and a minority, dissenting opinion? How will that be derived?
Traynham: We don't know yet. Of course, the hope is that we will have a broad consensus view of what the recommendation to the Congress is. Hopefully, we won't have an eleven-to-ten split on how we should proceed. I don't know whether we can really expect a totally unanimous [vote] on all issues. But I think there is a very good chance we will achieve a broad consensus on what to do here.
AVweb: Is there any mechanism built into the statute or built into the Commission's rules for handling any dissention?
Traynham: Well, the Commission will put out a report and if there has been a vote and there are negative votes on the report, I presume we would note that and what points of a recommendation someone was opposed to. I guess if it were strongly felt that there needed to be an opposing view we would incorporate a minority report, if there is such a thing. But, I'm pretty confident we can develop a consensus.
AVweb: Under the statute, the Commission has two task forces, one on financing the FAA and the other on aviation safety generally. What is the process the Commission will use to generate your final reports?
Traynham: Well, we have had two informational briefings so far — we'll have two more at the end of this week - on various issues associated with financing. The first two dealt a lot with the budget process of the federal government and some issues that raises. The meetings we have later this week are focused on the air traffic control modernization effort, cost issues associated with that, how do we get more productivity out of FAA systems and people, and then we'll be having an afternoon-long discussion of airport capital development needs and differing approaches to that.
In the first meeting, at which we organized, Norm Mineta, the Commission chairman, suggested that all members of the Commission be a member of the financing task force. We haven't set up the safety task force yet. Most members of the Commission are on it because they are interested in the financing task force, so we just thought it would be better to have everybody participate in that. Whether everyone participates in the safety [task force] or not — I have a feeling some [Commission members] may opt to not participate in that for various reasons.
We'll have our first public hearing on May 28. We just announced that and we're trying to get a feel for who wants to come in and present testimony. If it's a real heavy count, we'll probably schedule a second day in June or sometime. We haven't done that yet.
AVweb: Obviously, at your May 28 hearing, you are probably going to be hearing from a lot of the "alphabet soup" groups here in Washington — the usual suspects as it were. What about John Q. Public? What avenues, what mechanisms, if any, does he or she have to present a statement or comment to the Commission?
Traynham: They are certainly not prevented from doing so. Obviously, there are only so many minutes and hours in the day, so if we get too many requests to testify than we can physically accommodate we may have to go to another day. But this is a general, open-to-the-public sort of hearing. Whether we get many requests from John Q. Public wanting to come in, we'll just have to sort that out. But people should contact the Commission — the person on our staff to contact is Margie Tower — and we'll be glad to take written comments from the public and make them part of the record and available to Commission members.
AVweb: The two task forces — financing and safety — there have been many concerns over the years that certain kinds of user fees on specific services that the FAA offers could, in fact, impact aviation safety. How do you intend to balance out those concerns? Do you anticipate that the safety task force, which will come later, will look at some of the financing recommendations and alter them for safety considerations?
Traynham: Well, first of all, we will have people who are cognizant of what each task force is doing — there will be a lot of overlap — so it isn't like the left hand will not know what the right hand is doing. Obviously there is a meshing of the two issues in a number of key places. I don't see too much of a balancing. I think that if the Commission felt that a particular type of fee or charge would impact safety, I presume we would not do it. We don't want to have financing mechanisms affecting safety.
AVweb: From your conversations with your colleagues on Capitol Hill and conversations with Senators and Congressmen, what kind of "fast-track," if any, do you think the Commission's recommendations will be on? Clearly, you are going to make your recommendations into draft legislation and take them back up to the Hill on or about Labor Day, leaving one month or so before the start of the new fiscal year. What do you think will be the reception that the Commission's work product will receive?
Traynham: Well, the Commission was set up by Congress because there was no consensus within the Congress on how to proceed on financing the FAA or on the various proposals on the different financing mechanisms floating around. So, the Commission was set up to try to forge a consensus. I have to think that given the circumstances of the Commission having been established there will be some receptivity to the Commission's recommendations if it is a broad consensus. So, I'm optimistic.
In terms of time frame, if we're going to be in the [federal budget] reconciliation [bill], it's conceivable that we will need to have some concepts to [the Hill] even before August. Last week, there was talk of the whole reconciliation process being on a fast track. But we'll have to see how that process goes. If we miss that cycle, I think things will be dealt with in next year's aviation authorization legislation.
There is a process provided in the [1996 FAA reauthorization] bill for the Senate to take up [the Commission's recommendations] on a specific schedule outside the reconciliation process. The House does not have that process, so there may be some quicker Senate action in the fall and if that's happening, that might spur some House action, too.
AVweb: One of the ongoing concerns in the aviation industry right now is the failure of the Administration to make a nomination with respect to the FAA administration. Now clearly, Barry Valentine, the acting administrator, by all accounts is doing pretty good work. What, if any, impact does the lack of an administrator or the lack of long-term leadership at the agency have on the Commission's work?
Traynham: I don't think it has too much of an impact on the Commission's work. It's been a good while since we've had a "full-blown" FAA administrator — you're right, Barry Valentine is getting good marks. But a lot of major decisions get put on hold — things kind of coast along — without an administrator in place. One thing to note is that this administrator — the one who will be named shortly — will be the first one operating under a five-year term. Congress put that into law with hopes that it the position would become more of a long-term situation.
AVweb: Obviously, the name most frequently and most recently mentioned for that position is [Acting Federal Highway Administrator] Jane Garvey. She has a very good reputation among transportation-industry people here in town. She's a public sector manager by profession, she's gotten good marks at the Federal Highway Administration, she is obviously very close to DOT Secretary Slater, but she has very little aviation experience. She was director of Boston Logan Airport for several years and obviously Boston Logan is a major international airport. But there are so many other segments of the industry that she would need to address and serve as the FAA administrator. How would you comment on her abilities to understand the Commission's work and recognize the value of its recommendations for what they are?
Traynham: I don't know Jane Garvey — I never had the opportunity to work with her — but you're right, she comes with a very good, strong reputation. I'm told that once she is formally nominated she would like to meet with the Commission and we'll certainly set that up. She is aware, I'm told, of what the Commission is up to and what are the issues we have before us. She's interested in learning more about that and I anticipate that at one of our future meetings, she'll be a participant.
AVweb: Going back to the Commission's work on financing of the agency, over the years one of the main complaints of user groups and elements of the public has been the failure of the FAA to adequately manage its air traffic control modernization, for example. Other complaints have centered on Congress' failure to appropriate the funds necessary to move forward on modernization. And, of course, we get into the entire question of how the budget process impacts the Airport and Airways Trust Fund. Will the Congressional budget and appropriations process and the way that the Airport and Airways Trust Fund fits into the budget be part of the financing task force's work?
Traynham: Oh, very much so. We've established a work group within the Commission's staff to examine how we would improve the budget process for aviation, should aviation revenues and programs receive some sort of specialized budget treatment that they don't have today. So, yes, those are key issues for the Commission's work. They will be making decisions on what to recommend in that area.
The short-hand way to look at the work of the Commission is "How can how we finance and budget the nation's aviation programs in a better way?" That raises issues of whether you move to a more cost-based fee system, what kind of budget process treatment do you give it? If you are going to change how much is charged, you have to know how much to charge. That raises the question of how much airport development do you expect the federal government to support? So, I think the Commission is going to have wrestle that issue. We will have to wrestle with how the [system's cost] will be borne by the users as opposed to the general public. Right now, about 65% of the agency's expenses are supported by the Trust Fund, with the rest supported by the general fund. Does that Trust Fund or user share go up? That's an issue that is very key to the Administration.
AVweb: You also have [the Department of Defense's] share to consider...
Traynham: That's right. We have liaisons to the Commission from various federal agencies — we have someone from DOD participating in our meetings.
One of the things I've come to think that has to be major part of the Commission's recommendation is how to get costs to users of the system down — how do we get the FAA's costs down? So, we have another work group that is cataloging and inventorying a variety of ways to reduce costs to users. If we develop a new system of financing, someone — or possibly everyone — will have to pay more to support the system. If you are going to ask people to do that, you have to show them the benefit and that [means] getting costs to users down. So that's...
AVweb: And/or improving services...
Traynham: Right, if you are going to improve services, presumably that will have some cost/benefit effect. So that will be a major feature of the Commission's work, one on which I'm not sure that Congress was all that focused when it [created the Commission]. It's going to be a major focus of the Commission.
AVweb: Your work groups are separate from the task forces?
Traynham: When I say "work groups," that's how we've organized the staff.
AVweb: Have you organized any specific work groups?
Traynham: Well, we have a work group working on the budget process issues, we have one working on cost-reduction issues, we have another one working on issues associated with cost allocations — we have cost allocation studies that show the general aviation sector imposes more costs than it pays in taxes. Most of the general aviation people with whom I've met recognize that. They also say at the same time that if the studies indicate that they are only paying a fifth of their costs, [the resulting] taxes would be unreasonable, and I think everyone agrees with that.
Their main concern as I've detected so far is less with how much they pay — obviously there is a point where that does become a major concern — but with the mechanism of payment. They pay a fuel tax at this point and that is the way they would like to see that system keep operating. There is no reason that couldn't happen, if you were to set up a different system for the airlines — go to a more cost-based system for the airlines side — to me there is nothing conceptually wrong, or bad. You could set that system up and keep a fuel tax system going for general aviation. There's no reason you couldn't do that. No Commission member has decided what to do here, so I'm just speculating. You could come out with a continuation of the fuel taxes on general aviation.
AVweb: The range of options the Commission has in front of it includes the current system of taxes, but also a per mile fee for all aircraft...
AVweb: ...and the existing taxes could be increased, altered, could be lumped together on all operations, so the range of options that the Commission has in front of it is pretty much wide open, is it not?
Traynham: That's right. Another option would be to keep some users paying what they're paying now and make adjustments in other areas, so you're right, it's probably wide open. That's what Congress wanted — for the Commission to examine all options.
AVweb: How many people do you have on staff?
Traynham: About 15, some of whom are part-time. Three of us came from Capitol Hill, myself, Donna McLean, [from the House Aviation Subcommittee] and Mike Reynolds from [the] Senate Commerce [Committee]. We have a number of detailees from the FAA and the budget office in the Department of Transportation. We have a couple of people on loan to us from the Mitre Corporation and from Coopers & Lybrand, who did the independent financial assessment, and then we have some administrative and clerical staff, as well.
AVweb: One of the critiques of the Coopers study is that it basically only scratched the surface. Some would respond that that is what is was designed to do, given the timeframe it was accomplished in and given that it forms a foundation for the NCARC's work. To what extent will the Commission be looking at the Coopers report, critiquing it and taking it apart and putting it back together?
Traynham: Well, I think the Coopers report said that the FAA's estimates of its future costs or future budget needs was a reasonable estimate — a $59 billion figure over five years. But it also said that it is not reasonable to expect for the users to pay that sort of funding but that it is also reasonable to expect that that is a baseline from which those sorts of costs have to be brought down. And they gave some listings of some specific programs that should be restructured or changed.
They also identified costs that the FAA had not identified — additional costs — and it's hard to put numbers on some of those, but that's part of the report that didn't get as much attention as the cost savings did. So, it's a very valuable piece for us. We hired the guy who worked on the study and he'll continue to work with us on it.
AVweb: We're doing this interview a year and a day after the ValuJet crash in the Everglades. Since then there have been a number of other accidents: TWA 800; the Quincy, Illinois, ground collision between a scheduled commuter carrier and a private turboprop; and the Comair accident, which was very reminiscent of the American Eagle ATR crash near Roselawn, Indiana. In recent days, a number of people have come out of the woodwork to comment that nothing within the agency has really changed since ValuJet. The FAA continues to "drag its feet" on implementing new regulations to enhance safety, for example. Smoke detectors in cargo compartments and fuel tanks in Boeing 747s are other examples
It appears to the layman, and even to some who are not laymen, that the FAA is dragging its feet. And, of course, there is a lot of talk from people like [former DOT Inspector General] Mary Schiavo about internal mismanagement at the FAA. What, if anything, will the Commission be looking at with respect to FAA operations, FAA management and in FAA responses to NTSB recommendations?
Traynham: Well, a lot of that will be dealt with in the safety piece that we'll be looking at later in the summer. I think everyone, including people at the FAA, would agree that the regulatory process needs to move quicker when something like this happens.
The main problem is that, under the current way of doing things, to regulate you need to show a positive benefit-to-cost ratio and that is sometimes very difficult to do, either because [a proposed action has no] benefits or because it's just very hard to calculate them, even if you know what the benefits are. So, it's a very tough process under which the FAA labors to generate regulations. I don't look over there and see deliberate foot-dragging by people — the process certainly results in things not moving as quickly as they should sometimes. So, I think the thing the public has to recognize is that what to do is not as clear sometimes. Also, these things are controversial. The way our government works, whether the FAA, the EPA, the Securities Exchange Commission — if something is controversial — we have an elaborate process by which that is dealt with — published comments, the rulemaking process — it's designed to take a long time.
AVweb: Does the Commission have a World Wide Web site?
Traynham: We're going to set one up, we haven't done that yet, put that's coming along pretty soon.
AVweb: Will it include schedules, timelines, thing like that, and the various documents that the Commission generates?
AVweb: What about opportunities for feedback?
Traynham: Yeah, I think we'd like to do that. We're trying to get some technical assistance, but we do have a person on staff who is looking at that, figuring out what we need to do.
AVweb: David, thank you very much.
Traynham: Glad to.