"Everybody's ox got gored," observed Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Budget Committee, speaking of President Bush's $2.57 trillion budget plan. While defense and homeland security both saw increases, most spending on domestic programs would be frozen or cut.
For aviation, it could have been a lot worse.
"The best news is that there will be no user fees for general aviation in 2006," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "In fact, the budget book even reiterates the 'no user fee' language that we asked Congress to include in the last FAA spending bill.
"But if this budget survives Congress unchanged, general aviation airports will take a disproportionate cut. The airlines are already prowling the halls of Congress lobbying for them to pay less, and GA to pay more.
We'll be lobbying just as hard to make sure GA is treated equitably in all areas," Boyer pledged.
Overall, the President is proposing a 1.27-percent cut in the FAA's budget to roughly $13.8 billion. Of course, the devil is always in the details. And remember, this is the President's proposal; it will look different after Congress has had its way with the budget lines.
There is both good and bad for GA in the three volumes of budget detail the White House dropped on Congress yesterday.
Good news, besides no user fees next year, is continued funding for the wide area augmentation system (WAAS) and its promise of instrument approaches with vertical guidance into nearly every GA airport. "The administration is showing commitment to this program, with $100 million budgeted," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of Government and Technical Affairs.
But there's bad news for airports, with a $600 million cut from previously authorized levels in funding for the Airport Improvement Program. That program is budgeted at a little over $3 billion for fiscal year 2006.
The cuts would hit general aviation airports harder than the big airports. The reason is tied up in the somewhat arcane formulas written into the law, but the bottom line is that the set-aside for GA airports would be reduced from 20 to 18.5 percent. That means GA would get an even smaller portion of a smaller pie. The general aviation "entitlement" of up to $150,000 per airport would also be eliminated.
"The small GA airports that can afford it the least would be hurt the most under this budget proposal," said Cebula. "We will have our work cut out for us to protect general aviation airports' share."
The FAA's research and development budget would be cut 13 percent next year. At $130 million, it's a fairly small budget by federal standards, but the belt-tightening could be taken in a program critical to general aviation - finding a replacement for leaded aviation gasoline and associated engine technology. AOPA will push hard to ensure that research effort isn't halted.
The facilities budget would be cut by 3 percent, giving the FAA less to work with to maintain and modernize its equipment.
The FAA's largest expense is personnel, and that just keeps getting larger. The operations account was the only one to get an increase - up 4 percent to a little over $8 billion. That's almost two thirds of the agency's entire budget, and it includes $150 million for transitioning operations of the flight service station system to contractor Lockheed Martin. There's another $24.9 million in there to hire 595 new air traffic controllers to cover anticipated retirements.
"This isn't the final word on the budget, but a start," said Cebula. "Congress will have its say. And not only will the airlines be trying to offload some of their costs, other interest groups will be lobbying for budget changes as well. Because of the overall budget caps, what happens in another area could have an indirect impact on aviation funding.
"With federal dollars as tight as they are, this will be a difficult session. But we have a strong voice, and we will be heard."
February 8, 2005