'Fiscal cliff' negotiations could bring aviation impacts

December 6, 2012

With the leaders of both political parties locked in high-stakes brinkmanship over taxes and spending, there is concern that the so-called “fiscal cliff,” and the deep spending cuts and tax increases that would follow, could do significant damage to aviation.

The FAA stands to lose $1 billion of its $15.8 billion budget if automatic spending cuts are allowed to proceed, and impacts would be felt by general aviation, aerospace manufacturers, and airline interests alike.

While federal agencies have not yet spelled out budget-cutting contingency plans in detail, AOPA estimates that a reduction of that magnitude could force the FAA to close more than 200 control towers, and lay off more than 600 safety and aircraft certification staff, along with 1,200 controllers. In addition, modernization of the National Airspace System (NextGen) that is already under way would likely be delayed, and airport improvement funds might be at risk.

“I believe the winter of 2012-2013 may be the most dangerous we have faced in a very long time,” AOPA President Craig Fuller wrote in the August issue of AOPA Pilot.

Little has changed since: Negotiations have yet to produce consensus on a different path to deficit reduction, and a recent Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found 49 percent of Americans surveyed do not expect a deal by Dec. 31.

In an interview with AOPA Live This Week for the Dec. 6 edition, Fuller said insiders expect Congress will get some kind of deal done by the end of the year, but that it may not be the final word.

“The two (scenarios) that are kind of being focused on is something now, a so-called down payment, if you will, and then more time to work out further details during the course of 2013,” Fuller said. “Or, some mechanism by which they kick the can down the road. That’s a harder one to see.”

Going “over the cliff” remains a possibility, one that would give all federal agencies little time to make large cuts in a fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, 2013. Fuller said there has been direct dialogue with acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who cannot yet specify the impact of the automatic cuts that would be required if no deal is reached in December.

“It’s the policy of the administration not to yet identify those savings (budget cuts),” Fuller said, “because they don’t think they’ll have to find them.”

AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Relations Melissa Rudinger expressed concern about potential safety impacts in a recent CNN interview, and the association’s legislative affairs staff is keeping in close touch with members of the House and Senate General Aviation Caucuses, which include 190 House members and 39 senators – a record number of lawmakers who are engaged in aviation issues and aware of aviation priorities.

There has been no specific talk during recent negotiations about user fees, though the Obama administration has made attempts to impose user fees – $100 per flight – that AOPA and general aviation supporters in Congress have successfully opposed. Negotiations are being conducted at the leadership level, and rank-and-file members of Congress have been given no details yet.

“While there is a lot of uncertainty in Washington, D.C., right now on the fiscal cliff discussions, we will continue to work with our congressional supporters to monitor the situation and any attempts to impose user fees,” said AOPA Vice President of Legislative Affairs Lorraine Howerton. 

AOPA legislative affairs staff will continue to work with other aviation organizations and members of Congress who will vote on a final deal, to ensure that safety remains a priority and to protect pilots, aircraft owners, and those whose jobs depend on the aviation industry.