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.


ATISAVweb: 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 aviationtrade groups are upset with the composition of the Commission -not so much with the people who are on it but with people who arenot on it. We do have a woman from a fixed-based operation inSouth Dakota, Linda Barker, who views herself as coming from thegeneral aviation industry. I don’t think the Aircraft Owners andPilots Association, the General Aviation ManufacturersAssociation or the National Air Transport Association – whilethey are happy she’s on there, she does not come with broadpolitical support from the general aviation community, likesomeone would coming from a trade association.

I have met more with the representatives from the generalaviation community since the Commission was up and running than Ihave with the Commissioners and I will continue to do that. Myview is that although they are not formally named on theCommission or part of the Commission, if we are to develop aconsensus on how to finance the aviation programs of the countryin the future, they have to be part of that consensus. They maynot be part of the Commission but they need to be part of theconsensus. So, I’m talking with their representatives, I knowthem all, I consider them friends, and I will continue talkingwith 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 theHouse Aviation Subcommittee, which is where I’ve been virtuallythe whole time since, except for about nine months on the CoastGuard 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-Senateconference that agreed to it. The actual language that sets upthe Commission was largely a product of the Senate, on thefinancing side. The House had a provision which dealt with safetyissues and those were merged in conference. But the part that setup 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 finalreport 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. [FormerRepresentative] Norm Mineta, who chairs the Commission, wants tohave the Commission’s financing recommendations folded into the[Congressional budget] reconciliation bill that will be developedthis summer. In order to accomplish that, I think we will prettymuch 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 theopportunity to review the report on the financing piece, I thinkthe Commission needs to pretty well come to some decisions bymid-July.

The safety piece, there’s a statutory deadline that we reportby October 7, which is the one-year anniversary of when the lawsetting up the Commission was enacted. We’re doing the financingpiece and the safety piece in sequence. We will be doing thefinancing work first, and that will continue through August. Thenwe will start running parallel on the safety issues around July1.

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 theCommission, to some extent, they were expected to bring theirparochial interests to the table. The Commission’s purpose is tohave a negotiation to put some issues to bed – to bring closureto these issues. So, the idea behind the appointments was to havesome people who can speak for Delta Air Lines – Scott Yohe,Senior Vice President for Delta is a Commissioner. So it’s notreally designed to be an objective sort of Commission. It’s aCommission that’s to negotiate some issues that have vexedpolicy-makers for some time – to bring a recommendation back. Soit’s meant to be a kind of politically-negotiated settlement ofsome issues. I don’t think we’re expecting the representative whoalso works for UPS to leave his UPS hat at the door, so to speak.There are interests that need to work out some compromises witheach other. So, I don’t see a problem with having those variedinterests.

Now, we do have some people who have non-aviation backgroundson the Commission, as well. They bring financing and budgetingexperience, in some cases. So, it’s a mixture of people withdifferent backgrounds. I think that they people who wereselected, even though they may come from a particular company ortrade association or something like that, they are individualswho do have some ability to build consensus on issues, to workout compromises and, when need be, they can take a broader viewthan their particular interest. I don’t think anyone expects themto argue positions that are contrary to where they came from. Ithink what people are looking for is that they will recognizethat, 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 isthat we will have a broad consensus view of what therecommendation to the Congress is. Hopefully, we won’t have aneleven-to-ten split on how we should proceed. I don’t knowwhether we can really expect a totally unanimous [vote] on allissues. But I think there is a very good chance we will achieve abroad 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 reportand if there has been a vote and there are negative votes on thereport, I presume we would note that and what points of arecommendation someone was opposed to. I guess if it werestrongly felt that there needed to be an opposing view we wouldincorporate a minority report, if there is such a thing. But, I’mpretty 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 briefingsso far – we’ll have two more at the end of this week – onvarious issues associated with financing. The first two dealt alot with the budget process of the federal government and someissues that raises. The meetings we have later this week arefocused on the air traffic control modernization effort, costissues associated with that, how do we get more productivity outof FAA systems and people, and then we’ll be having anafternoon-long discussion of airport capital development needsand differing approaches to that.

In the first meeting, at which we organized, Norm Mineta, theCommission chairman, suggested that all members of the Commissionbe a member of the financing task force. We haven’t set up thesafety task force yet. Most members of the Commission are on itbecause they are interested in the financing task force, so wejust thought it would be better to have everybody participate inthat. Whether everyone participates in the safety [task force] ornot – I have a feeling some [Commission members] may opt to notparticipate in that for various reasons.

We’ll have our first public hearing on May 28. We justannounced that and we’re trying to get a feel for who wants tocome in and present testimony. If it’s a real heavy count, we’llprobably schedule a second day in June or sometime. We haven’tdone 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 doingso. Obviously, there are only so many minutes and hours in theday, so if we get too many requests to testify than we canphysically accommodate we may have to go to another day. But thisis a general, open-to-the-public sort of hearing. Whether we getmany requests from John Q. Public wanting to come in, we’ll justhave to sort that out. But people should contact the Commission- the person on our staff to contact is Margie Tower – andwe’ll be glad to take written comments from the public and makethem 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 whoare cognizant of what each task force is doing – there will be alot of overlap – so it isn’t like the left hand will not knowwhat the right hand is doing. Obviously there is a meshing of thetwo issues in a number of key places. I don’t see too much of abalancing. I think that if the Commission felt that a particulartype of fee or charge would impact safety, I presume we would notdo it. We don’t want to have financing mechanisms affectingsafety.

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 Congressbecause there was no consensus within the Congress on how toproceed on financing the FAA or on the various proposals on thedifferent financing mechanisms floating around. So, theCommission was set up to try to forge a consensus. I have tothink that given the circumstances of the Commission having beenestablished there will be some receptivity to the Commission’srecommendations if it is a broad consensus. So, I’m optimistic.

In terms of time frame, if we’re going to be in the [federalbudget] reconciliation [bill], it’s conceivable that we will needto have some concepts to [the Hill] even before August. Lastweek, there was talk of the whole reconciliation process being ona fast track. But we’ll have to see how that process goes. If wemiss that cycle, I think things will be dealt with in next year’saviation 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. TheHouse does not have that process, so there may be some quickerSenate action in the fall and if that’s happening, that mightspur 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 onthe Commission’s work. It’s been a good while since we’ve had a”full-blown” FAA administrator – you’re right, BarryValentine is getting good marks. But a lot of major decisions getput on hold – things kind of coast along – without anadministrator in place. One thing to note is that thisadministrator – the one who will be named shortly – will be thefirst one operating under a five-year term. Congress put thatinto law with hopes that it the position would become more of along-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 theopportunity to work with her – but you’re right, she comes witha very good, strong reputation. I’m told that once she isformally nominated she would like to meet with the Commission andwe’ll certainly set that up. She is aware, I’m told, of what theCommission is up to and what are the issues we have before us.She’s interested in learning more about that and I anticipatethat 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 workgroup within the Commission’s staff to examine how we wouldimprove the budget process for aviation, should aviation revenuesand programs receive some sort of specialized budget treatmentthat they don’t have today. So, yes, those are key issues for theCommission’s work. They will be making decisions on what torecommend 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 aviationprograms in a better way?” That raises issues of whether youmove to a more cost-based fee system, what kind of budget processtreatment do you give it? If you are going to change how much ischarged, you have to know how much to charge. That raises thequestion of how much airport development do you expect the federalgovernment to support? So, I think the Commission is going tohave wrestle that issue. We will have to wrestle with how the[system’s cost] will be borne by the users as opposed to thegeneral public. Right now, about 65% of the agency’s expenses aresupported by the Trust Fund, with the rest supported by thegeneral fund. Does that Trust Fund or user share go up? That’s anissue 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 theCommission from various federal agencies – we have someone fromDOD participating in our meetings.

One of the things I’ve come to think that has to be major partof the Commission’s recommendation is how to get costs to usersof the system down – how do we get the FAA’s costs down? So, wehave another work group that is cataloging and inventorying avariety of ways to reduce costs to users. If we develop a newsystem of financing, someone – or possibly everyone – will haveto pay more to support the system. If you are going to ask peopleto 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 willbe a major feature of the Commission’s work, one on which I’m notsure that Congress was all that focused when it [created theCommission]. 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’show we’ve organized the staff.

AVweb: Have you organized any specific work groups?

Traynham: Well, we have a work group working on thebudget process issues, we have one working on cost-reductionissues, we have another one working on issues associated withcost allocations – we have cost allocation studies that show thegeneral aviation sector imposes more costs than it pays in taxes.Most of the general aviation people with whom I’ve met recognizethat. They also say at the same time that if the studies indicatethat they are only paying a fifth of their costs, [the resulting]taxes would be unreasonable, and I think everyone agrees withthat.

Their main concern as I’ve detected so far is less with howmuch they pay – obviously there is a point where that doesbecome a major concern – but with the mechanism of payment. Theypay a fuel tax at this point and that is the way they would liketo see that system keep operating. There is no reason thatcouldn’t happen, if you were to set up a different system for theairlines – go to a more cost-based system for the airlines side- to me there is nothing conceptually wrong, or bad. You couldset that system up and keep a fuel tax system going for generalaviation. There’s no reason you couldn’t do that. No Commissionmember has decided what to do here, so I’m just speculating. Youcould come out with a continuation of the fuel taxes on generalaviation.

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…

Traynham: Sure…

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 keepsome users paying what they’re paying now and make adjustments inother areas, so you’re right, it’s probably wide open. That’swhat Congress wanted – for the Commission to examine alloptions.

AVweb: How many people do you have on staff?

Traynham: About 15, some of whom are part-time. Threeof us came from Capitol Hill, myself, Donna McLean, [from theHouse Aviation Subcommittee] and Mike Reynolds from [the] SenateCommerce [Committee]. We have a number of detailees from the FAAand the budget office in the Department of Transportation. Wehave a couple of people on loan to us from the Mitre Corporationand from Coopers & Lybrand, who did the independent financialassessment, and then we have some administrative and clericalstaff, 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 thatthe FAA’s estimates of its future costs or future budget needswas a reasonable estimate – a $59 billion figure over fiveyears. But it also said that it is not reasonable to expect forthe users to pay that sort of funding but that it is alsoreasonable to expect that that is a baseline from which thosesorts of costs have to be brought down. And they gave somelistings of some specific programs that should be restructured orchanged.

They also identified costs that the FAA had not identified -additional costs – and it’s hard to put numbers on some ofthose, but that’s part of the report that didn’t get as muchattention as the cost savings did. So, it’s a very valuable piecefor us. We hired the guy who worked on the study and he’llcontinue 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 thesafety piece that we’ll be looking at later in the summer. Ithink everyone, including people at the FAA, would agree that theregulatory process needs to move quicker when something like thishappens.

The main problem is that, under the current way of doingthings, to regulate you need to show a positive benefit-to-costratio and that is sometimes very difficult to do, either because[a proposed action has no] benefits or because it’s just veryhard to calculate them, even if you know what the benefits are.So, it’s a very tough process under which the FAA labors togenerate regulations. I don’t look over there and see deliberatefoot-dragging by people – the process certainly results inthings not moving as quickly as they should sometimes. So, Ithink the thing the public has to recognize is that what to do isnot as clear sometimes. Also, these things are controversial. Theway our government works, whether the FAA, the EPA, theSecurities 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 totake a long time.

AVweb: Does the Commission have a World Wide Web site?

Traynham: We’re going to set one up, we haven’t donethat 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?

Traynham: Right.

AVweb: What about opportunities for feedback?

Traynham: Yeah, I think we’d like to do that. We’retrying to get some technical assistance, but we do have a personon staff who is looking at that, figuring out what we need to do.

AVweb: David, thank you very much.

Traynham: Glad to.