President's Position: Storm brewing

A (likely) winter of discontent

August 1, 2012

Craig Fuller

Yes, I know it’s summer across America and we are supposed to be enjoying friends, families, and flying. But there is a storm brewing, and those of us who fight for our freedom to fly find it very, very troubling. That’s what’s on my mind as I prepare for my flight to Oshkosh for AirVenture.

For pilots, presidential election years increasingly mean TFRs popping up in all 50 states. In Washington, D.C., they mean big issues get pushed to a lame-duck session of Congress after the election—or beyond that, into the next year. I believe the winter of 2012-2013 may be the most dangerous we have faced in a very long time.

The trouble is that Congress has kicked the proverbial can just about as far down the road as it can go. Following the November 6 elections, Congress will reconvene to take up something called “sequestration.” That means automatic and indiscriminate budget cuts across just about every sector of government in an attempt to slash $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit. The idea behind sequestration is that it would create such draconian and unacceptable cuts that Congress would instead choose a more deliberative approach, making cuts account by account. But so far, that hasn’t happened. If Congress doesn’t reach an agreement this fall, sequestration will take effect automatically on January 1, 2013.

The numbers are frightening. The FAA’s air traffic organization will have to lay off an estimated 2,000 employees, including 1,200 air traffic controllers and 900 technicians. The agency also would likely close more than 200 contract towers. Another 600 safety and aircraft certification personnel would be lost through attrition and not replaced. The NextGen ATC modernization initiative would not be spared either, potentially receiving cuts of up to 8 percent or $160 million. Along with budget cuts will come attempts to raise revenue. The battle over user fees that could follow will make our past fights over this issue look like a walk in the park.

There is a growing notion around Washington that almost all the interest groups are going to be targeted, and general aviation is no exception. None of the alternatives is pain free; indeed, many are very painful. This is not policy making at its best!

Here we are today, with more widespread support for general aviation in Congress than we’ve seen in a very long time. The House General Aviation Caucus has 186 members and the Senate GA Caucus tops one-third of the Senate, with 39 members. The elected officials and their staff representatives have been so very responsive over the past few years. Letters from leaders of both parties and many members have been sent to the Obama administration opposing user-fee proposals.

In any fair fight, I think our supporters on Capitol Hill, urged on by a fully united aviation community, would prevail. But the fight that’s coming this winter is not likely to be fair or friendly.

So, what are we doing?

Well, for one thing, we are attending both national party conventions during the next few weeks to honor the federal, state, and local officials who support general aviation. We are being joined by our friends at the National Business Aviation Association in recognition events at both conventions, and members are welcome to join us in Tampa and Charlotte.

Summer is also a time when elected officials spend time at home. Get in front of them and let them know one more time that their community is counting on them not to sign on to a European-like user-fee scheme that could profoundly damage GA.

And we will be asking you for your help when the strength of our membership will mean the most.

We will do all we can to keep you informed in the weeks ahead. Just know that proposals are likely to come at us fast and furious, often tucked away within large packages. It will be a lively debate with profound implications, and we will be alert to all the possibilities.

General aviation needs your support now more than ever. So in the calm before the storm, let me say, as always, thanks for your support in protecting our freedom to fly!

Email AOPA President Craig Fuller at craig@aopa.org.