Senator Conrad Burns
Congress is casting a jaundiced eye on the FAA's budget and funding proposals. And the scrutiny has only just begun.
"This subcommittee is very concerned about some of the programmatic cuts proposed in this budget," said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) Tuesday at the first of multiple hearings on the FAA's 2007 budget and future funding needs. Burns is chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Burns in particular objected to "massive cuts" in the Airport Improvement Program (AIP). "I find it very short sighted to cut rural airport funding at a time when aviation is seeing record numbers of passengers and projected traffic numbers," he told FAA Administrator Marion Blakey.
"To compound that, the AIP proposal is nearly $1 billion below the level this Committee authorized for the program. This Committee has consistently tried to provide infrastructure funding only to see it carved up in the budget proposal," Burns said.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was also irate at the funding cut for small airports.
"These airports are the villages' only access to the outside world," said Stevens. Reminding the FAA administrator that some of the airports had gotten runway lights from previous AIP budgets, he said, "It's dark half of the year there!"
And FAA claims about needing a new "funding stream" were also viewed with skepticism.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) pushed Blakey on what the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS) will cost. That's the FAA's plan to modernize the air traffic control and navigation systems. But Blakey couldn't answer Pryor, saying there were still too many variables to arrive at an approximate cost.
Said Pryor, "You have no idea what the next generation system will cost, so I think it would be hard to say if the revenue stream you have today would be adequate to cover that."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) got very specific, asking, "Will the Administration propose a new user fee for any segment of the general aviation community, including business aviation?"
Blakey said that while she would love to answer the question, she couldn't because the new funding proposal was still under review. She said that it would "balance" the competing concerns of general aviation and the airlines. "At this point, our concern is that we are able to tie the costs of the system to the revenue and come up with a stable, cost-based system that is more equitable than the current system."
March 29, 2006