FAA Funding II: What's The Deal?
So ... what's going on? Is this a "manufactured" crisis in FAA funding? Who's really behind it? And what do they want? Those answers are a bit more complicated, but the signs point to this being the early stages of an effort by airlines and some in government to undo decades of policy decisions designating a portion of the FAA's operating budget to come from general revenues with the remainder -- dedicated to infrastructure acquisition and improvement -- coming from user taxes. At the end of the day, the airlines would surely like to see the ATC system divested from the FAA and placed in the hands of a private entity created solely to operate it using a dedicated source of revenue designed to pay for all of its expenses. In other words, a U.S. ATC system based on and funded like Eurocontrol or NavCanada. Lockheed Martin's recently announced contract with the FAA to run a sharply consolidated network of Automated Flight Service Stations could be a dry run leading up to the "real thing." And, of course, the airlines would be primarily in control of establishing fees and determining how and when services would be offered. None of which would be a good thing for general or business aviation "as we know it." In fact, rumors have been circulating that one of the possible outcomes of an anticipated fight on the FAA's future would be elimination of the aviation agency we all know and love. A flurry of recent reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) taking to task the FAA for its failure to properly manage its air traffic organization -- the agency branch responsible for operating the ATC system -- have focused on management, funding and the agency's culture. In fact, one recent GAO report noted that "resistance to change ... is a characteristic of FAA personnel at all levels" and that a key "factor affecting modernization ... has been a shortfall in the technical expertise needed to design, develop, or manage complex air traffic systems." And, of course, as the FAA's employees and managers lose expertise, the private sector now has a great deal more. In addition to farming out operation of the ATC system to a to-be-established corporation, the FAA's remaining functions -- like certification, enforcement, and infrastructure improvement -- would be given to agencies within a retooled federal Department of Transportation. Or to the Department of Defense, which -- after all -- is increasingly involved in the ATC system's day-to-day operation. All of which strongly argues that tomorrow's meeting might be the opening salvo in a concerted effort to wrest ATC from the FAA, scatter the agency's remaining parts to the prevailing winds and squarely place the airlines in the left seat when it comes to U.S. domestic aviation.