FAA funding battle threatens to ground NextGen

The agency's new plan is based in part on a user fee system, which the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association says would unduly benefit large commercial airlines.

The planned implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which the Federal Aviation Administration says is necessary for meeting the demands on the U.S. aviation system, will be jeopardized if Congress does not approve new funding legislation for the agency, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said. The Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which finances the agency, is at its lowest point since 1997 – $1.8 billion. The FAA wants to replace the current tax-based system that underwrites the fund with most of its money with a hybrid program. That program would charge commercial airlines user fees rather than taxes and increase fuel excise taxes for general aviation, not for the airlines. The agency says the overhaul is needed to ensure that NextGen is implemented quickly and that the FAA can keep up with the projected increases in air traffic in the coming decades. “If we are unable to have a finance reform bill in place on Sept. 30 when the current set of taxes expires, the delays, the missed connections and the headlines are only going to get worse, much worse,” Blakey said. “With out a reliable funding stream, the NextGen program will start to slow down.” Blakey promoted the agency’s funding proposals June 13 at a NextGen Day on Capitol Hill. The event featured several exhibits on NextGen and speeches from members of the NextGen policy committee and Congress. “We know what we need to do. We know how to fix it. The next question is how do we pay for it,” said Blakey, a NextGen senior policy committee member. However, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which represents more than 400,000 general aviation aircraft owners and pilots, rejects the FAA proposal because it says the user fee system unduly benefits large commercial airlines and that user fee programs applied elsewhere have priced general aviation out of the market. AOPA also takes issue with a Senate proposal that also would impose user fees. Restructuring is unnecessary because the current fund would grow fast enough to support the NextGen system, as long as Congress continues to contribute to the fund at the same level, AOPA said. “We want to make sure whatever the funding system is that it does not include user fees on any segment of aviation, and that we address any growth in the use of air traffic control by general aviation through the fuel excise tax,” said Chris Dancy, spokesman for AOPA, said. Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said that in the coming months lawmakers will have to reconcile up to five proposals from the FAA and different congressional committees as they design a new tax and funding structure. When it’s completed in 2025, NextGen will represent a massive overhaul of the air transportation system at an estimated federal cost of $15 billion to $22 billion. The planning process for NextGen involves collaboration among the FAA, the Defense and Homeland Security departments, NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the private sector. The Joint Planning and Development Office, an organization Congress established to plan the project, released Version 2.0 of the concept of operations at NextGen Day. “The system is choked, it can’t grow anymore,” Michael Griffin, NASA’s administrator, told an audience. “Our contribution is to produce the elements which allow us to design a new system that can do new things that haven’t been done before in a way that will allow us to produce a system that didn’t just grow, that didn’t just evolve,  and that isn’t the patchwork quilt of responses to the last accident.”
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