Election: Ready, Set...What?
Elections, goes the conventional wisdom, have consequences and in last week's presidential contest, voters sent an ambiguous message to the body politic utterly lacking in anything certain. What does seem certain, however, is that aviation is unlikely to make it through the next four years unscathed.
User fees will probably come up again, as will funding for the FAA's favorite three-letter projects—all the technology related to NexGen—the revision of Part 23 and continuing budgetary support for airport improvements. According to AOPA's government affairs VP, Melissa Rudinger, who I spoke to last week, those are the largest targets on the legislative radar. There's another minor one, which we mentioned last week: The FAA is working on plans to scale back the 6000 or so instrument procedures to hundreds of airports as a cost-cutting move. What real impact that will have is unknown, but my view of it is that it's the leading edge of FAA budget constraints that will impact aviation at all levels, no matter what happens with the giant ticking time bomb called budget sequestration.
Over the weekend, the news columns were alternately filled with both partisan posturing and talking heads and pundits who insist both sides want a solution that will avoid Draconian budget cuts that will gut some federal agencies. But even if those drastic cuts don't come, you will be reading news stories from us about cutbacks in the FAA that will have big implications. The one I most worry about is a slowdown in certification projects for new aircraft, for avionics and for routine STCs and field approvals. We're already hearing stories that projects sent to the FAA are languishing for months with no action. Many small aviation businesses are barely holding on and escalating delays will be unsustainable for them. It will just squeeze out what little creativity remains among the cottage industry of mods and STCs.
Industry groups are feverishly working with the FAA on a simplification of FAR Part 23 to reduce the regulatory load on small aircraft, but there's no guarantee that this can be implemented before serious budget cuts kick in, and itself needs further funding to stay alive. It would be a disaster if it were delayed or tabled because of budget constraints. The same applies to the avgas transition plan, whose ARC reported out a long-term path to replace leaded avgas earlier this year. In the overall scheme of things, the budget it requires is coffee money for the FAA, but curtailing or cutting it entirely is hardly impossible.
So to a degree greater than most of us have ever known, aviation's vitality is tied to larger political and taxation considerations. What's protected GA in the past is a robust, bi-partisan Congressional aviation caucus that now has to be reassembled after the lame duck 112th Congress recesses in January. It's anyone's guess how large or effective that caucus will be and which experienced members will return to it. And even if it is effective, the harsh truth is that the money to support the aviation projects we all want and consider vital, simply may not be there.
If it's any consolation, every other special interest—and we are but one of hundreds—faces the same bleak outlook. After many years of no fees, low taxes and widely available—and good—services, I have the feeling that the party's just about over.