Congress has passed an extension to the current FAA funding bill that continues the government's authority to collect aviation taxes until mid November and allows the FAA to continue spending at its current budget levels.
Without the extension, aviation taxes and FAA spending authority would have lapsed on September 30. At that time, the House had passed a new FAA funding bill (H.R.2881), but the Senate had yet to complete action on its bill.
"These taxes are necessary to support the Airport and Airway Trust Fund," said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.). "Any lapse in the aviation taxes could put the solvency of the trust fund at risk."
The aviation trust fund "cannot sustain a long-term lapse in taxes," said aviation subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.). "Aviation is too important to our nation's economy...to allow any lapse of taxes or funding for critical aviation programs."
The three-month extension will give the Senate time to complete work on its bill and allow the House and Senate to resolve the differences between their respective FAA funding bills in a conference committee. (See " President's Position: In the Terminal Area,".)
The responsibility for airline delays was laid directly at the feet of the airlines during a recent House of Representatives hearing.
"The reasons for delays are many, and clearly weather, particularly summer storms, are a major factor," said Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee. "But there is also evidence to suggest that operational, technological, and economic trends and choices within the airline industry are factors."
So, once again, it's not general aviation's fault. Costello said that while delays have increased, systemwide operations have decreased by 11 percent since 2000. "The decline in total operations has been driven largely by a 17-percent decline in general aviation operations, contrary to what the airlines would have us believe," said Costello.
An expert from the Mitre Corporation (which advises the FAA on air traffic control) put the blame on scheduling. "The answer to the question of why operations are down and delays are up appears to be that traffic levels have increased at the most popular [airline] hubs, which have little spare capacity, and have decreased at less popular hubs, which have more spare capacity," said Dr. Agam N. Sinha, Mitre Corporation senior vice president, at the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing.
As upset as pilots have been about the spotty performance of the flight service station (FSS) system, members of Congress are equally unhappy.
"We're going to watch this very carefully," said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, during an October 10 hearing on the transition to contractor-operated flight service stations. "We'll hold hearings every three months if we have to."
AOPA President Phil Boyer said at the hearing, "My members hate this. They're mad as hell at me." Nevertheless, Boyer said that contracting out flight service was "the right thing to do, and the right time to do it."
That's because the FAA's antiquated FSS system was no longer meeting the needs of pilots and had become increasingly expensive to operate. The FAA's attempts to modernize the system were years behind schedule and well over budget.
Boyer revealed to the aviation subcommittee a massive, unprecedented FSS study that AOPA had undertaken starting in 1999. That study outlined seven different options for fixing the FSS system, with the preferred alternative of consolidating the existing 61 stations into 20 facilities.
"Then came the A-76 process [the FAA's study to determine whether contracting out flight service would be in the best interests of pilots and the government], and it served as a catalyst for us to turn to our study and say, 'We should support this.' Not privatization, but the outsourcing."
Boyer said that AOPA was initially pleased when Lockheed Martin was selected because of the company's worldwide track record with air traffic control. "This was kindergarten compared to some of the other things they were working on," said Boyer.
He said that AOPA had many meetings with both the FAA and the flight service contractor and emphasized again and again that having briefers with local knowledge would be critical to making the system work effectively for pilots.
When Lockheed Martin first took over the system, things were better than under the FAA. "We got through Hurricane Katrina better than we would have under the old system," Boyer said.
But then the company began transitioning to its own equipment and aggressively closing old FSS facilities. "Thank goodness for DUATS," said Boyer, because that system was there to take the load as the FSS system started collapsing.
And he faulted the FAA, too, for the failures of an overly aggressive transition and consolidation. "FAA management announced the contract, said, 'well, we're done with flight service now, we don't have to worry about it any longer,' and then literally walked away."
Aviation subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) agreed, saying, "I firmly believe that the FAA needs to do more aggressive oversight of this contract."
The Department of Transportation's inspector general also faulted the FAA during the hearing for not maintaining oversight and not responding quickly to problems after the transition began.
Boyer noted that a survey of AOPA members conducted within the two weeks before the hearing found that 64 percent were satisfied with the current level of service from the new flight service system.
"But if you were taking an FAA written test, that would be a failing grade," Boyer told Congress. He asked the aviation subcommittee to keep demanding reports from the FAA until "we get equal or better service" than the old system.
He asked for additional metrics to evaluate Lockheed Martin's performance. "Let's seek more aggressive feedback from our pilot community," and measure the quality of the briefing, not just the time to answer the phone.
Boyer concluded by noting, "We're a part of this." Although AOPA didn't select Lockheed Martin, it was part of making the transition happen. The association educated pilots beforehand on the need for the change and "we'll educate pilots on how to brief using the new system."
A "how-to" card was recently included in some 500,000 AOPA Pilot and AOPA Flight Training magazines, and an online course will be available in early 2008. Boyer also said AOPA would continue pushing until "equal or better service is truly out there."
With the congressional scrutiny on the flight service station (FSS) system, is service getting better? According to pilots, there's plenty of room for improvement.
AOPA's statistics and analytics staff recently surveyed 15,000 pilots about their satisfaction with FSS. Nearly 1,300 who had called FSS responded with their experiences, creating statistically valid results that give AOPA an accurate picture of the service pilots receive when they call FSS.
Overall, only 64 percent of survey respondents were satisfied with the level of service—a failing grade.
Specifically, 37 percent reported that they had hung up while waiting for a call to be answered; 85 percent were satisfied with briefer professionalism; and only 69 percent gave satisfactory ratings on briefer knowledge.
Pilots who submitted comments with the survey provided telling examples of how the system still falls short of the flight service contractor's promised service levels.
"For a recent clearance I was told to call another new number. I did and it was in Miami. I am in Arizona. He asked me to call another number. It was the same one I had just called," one pilot wrote.
Two reported that they worked with relatively new briefers who had little knowledge. Several commented that they use FSS as a last resort, turning to DUAT or DUATS first for weather briefings.
"Clearly the FAA has a ways to go in its supervision of its contractor to meet the needs of pilots," said Andy Cebula, AOPA executive vice president of government affairs.
It makes sense for the FAA to cancel underused, redundant instrument approach procedures, but not the ones still needed to satisfy general aviation pilots' requirements.
AOPA has submitted comments to the FAA on its proposal to eliminate more than 250 approaches.
AOPA strongly supports the FAA's efforts to transition the National Airspace System to satellite-based navigation. But after a detailed analysis of the approaches in question, AOPA determined many of the proposed cancellations could hinder GA operations. The association then suggested alternatives to the FAA:
AOPA members also expressed strong concerns—which the association pointed out to the FAA—about the loss of approaches needed for flight training purposes or for use as a backup when they do not have approach-capable GPS receivers installed.
The NTSB has recommended that pilots be required to equip their aircraft with a 406-MHz emergency locator transmitters (ELT). This recommendation comes because satellites will no longer monitor 121.5-MHz ELT signals after February 1, 2009.
"Pilots should be able to decide which ELT they want in their aircraft based upon their type of flying," said Melissa Rudinger, AOPA vice president of regulatory affairs. "We've alerted the FAA and the NTSB that we will oppose any attempt to require all pilots to equip with 406-MHz ELTs." Aircraft, ground stations, and air traffic control will continue to monitor 121.5 MHz after February 2009.
AOPA also is concerned about a mandate to equip with a 406-MHz ELT because one costs between $1,000 and $1,800, whereas the 121.5-MHz ELT costs $200.
The association has been working to educate pilots about the two ELTs, personal locator beacons, and cell phones with GPS receivers that can be used in case of an emergency.
If your seatback in the Cessna 172, 182, or 206 collapsed during takeoff, what would you do? Your instinct is to pull back on the yoke, which can cause the aircraft to enter an unusual attitude.
The FAA is proposing an airworthiness directive (AD) that would require the seat base attach bracket on these models be fitted with a bracket modification kit. On the Cessna 172 and 182, the AD would apply only to the crew seats.
However, the FAA wants to modify the brackets on the crew and third and fourth seats in the Cessna 206. AOPA has recommended that noncrew seats on the Cessna 206 be excluded from the AD because these seats do not pose a threat to the safety of flight. AOPA believes the Cessna 206 noncrew seats were appropriately addressed in a Cessna service bulletin issued earlier this year.
There's another benefit to the House FAA funding bill (H.R.2881) besides the lack of user fees. On a local level, it would provide a way for a northern Ohio county to buy and preserve a threatened airport, something AOPA has been urging for years. Under an amendment offered by Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), Lake County commissioners could seek a federal grant of up to $1.22 million if they decide to buy Lost Nation Municipal Airport from the city of Willoughby. The city has stopped accepting federal monies and is obligated to run the airport only through 2016. "Rep. LaTourette has shown his leadership in preserving the future of aviation access to the Cleveland area," said Andy Cebula, AOPA executive vice president of government affairs.
Pilots know flying is expensive enough, without having to pay state sales taxes on purchasing or maintaining an aircraft. In Pennsylvania, legislators are getting that message: If aviation is going to grow in the commonwealth, then the legislature needs to eliminate the aviation sales tax on aircraft, repairs, maintenance, and parts. That's the message AOPA and the Pennsylvania aviation community delivered recently, when Sen. Roger Madigan (R-Pa.) chaired a meeting of the Senate Transportation Committee to learn how eliminating those taxes would affect aviation in the commonwealth.
AOPA has been fighting tirelessly to restore general aviation facilities to central Texas ever since the city of Austin announced that it was closing Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. The airport, along with the privately owned Austin Executive Airport, closed within 60 days of each other in 1999. Now a Texas businessman, Ron Henriksen, is taking the issue into his own hands. Henriksen has bought a privately owned, public-use airport called Bird's Nest in Manor, Texas (12 miles northeast of Austin), as well as some additional land. He plans to pave and extend the sod runway and build hangars. Henriksen has plenty of experience; he built Houston Executive Airport. The new Bird's Nest, however, will cater to the piston-engine crowd and remain a public-use airport.
The FAA recently announced its final plans to move forward with a Northeast airspace redesign that would move commercial aircraft operations to higher altitudes and spread out air traffic routes. While any flight pattern changes are years from being implemented, there is strong concern from members of Congress representing communities that would be affected by the redesign.
We've all seen the headlines: "Aircraft crashes in mock combat; wing spar failure suspected;" "Structural failure may have led to seaplane accident." They are, sadly, the public face of an issue that continues to fuel debate within the industry: how to handle the challenges presented by the aging general aviation fleet.
Whatever the outcome of that debate, it's a safe bet that owner/pilot education will be a critical part of the solution. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has taken an important step in that direction with the release of its new "Aging Aircraft" online course. Developed as a proactive measure, the course is designed to help pilots recognize the symptoms of aircraft aging, understand their impact, and mitigate the risks.
Starting with the premise that age is more than just a number, the course defines aircraft aging in practical terms (chronological versus "true" age), discusses factors that have an impact on the effective rate of aging (e.g., use and abuse, maintenance, and storage), and offers suggestions for proactive inspection and maintenance practices. And because different aircraft makes and models have their own unique issues, it includes special, manufacturer-specific tracks for Beechcraft, Cessna, Mooney, and Piper.
The free course takes only 45 to 60 minutes to complete, but your progress is automatically saved, so there's no need to finish in one sitting. Find the "Aging Aircraft"course online.
This holiday season, give the gift that keeps on giving. By sending AOPA Air Safety Foundation aviation-themed holiday cards, you can spread holiday cheer while helping fund safety education programs that benefit thousands of pilots. A portion of the proceeds from the holiday cards helps the foundation provide important online courses, seminars, and publications to all pilots, free of charge.
The cards are available in 28 different designs, ranging from portraits of classic aircraft in tranquil holiday settings to more lighthearted scenes that imagine Santa as an aviation enthusiast.
Prices vary but are generally around $25 for a box of 25 cards. Each box includes a set of personalized return-address labels and decorative envelope seals. To order, visit the ASF Holiday Card Center online.
Remember Vince and Larry, the crash test dummies ("You could learn a lot from a dummy")? What about "This is your brain on drugs," or McGruff the crime dog?
Taking a cue from such classic public service announcements, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation is trying a different approach to the persistent problem of fuel-management accidents (see " Low-Fuel Emergency," page 109). Its new series of pilot safety announcements (PSAs) aims to spread the message of sensible fuel management to a wider audience without lecturing, and with a sense of humor.
"Fuel management is completely within the control of the pilot, and therefore accidents related to this issue should be rare," said ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg. "But the reality is that nearly three accidents happen each week because of fuel exhaustion or starvation. It's not a record we should be proud of."
The first of the short (45 to 60 seconds) video PSAs asks the question: What if the airlines handled fuel management the way some general aviation pilots do? The second pokes fun at the idea that pilots come up with some pretty creative excuses for having run out of fuel, while the third will likely evoke more gasps than guffaws.
Because the PSAs are meant to reach as many pilots as possible (including those outside the ASF's normal audience), they will be distributed via several different avenues, including popular aviation Web sites and YouTube, as well as ASF safety seminars and DVDs. Of course, they can also be seen at the foundation's Web site.
In the 1990s, public-use airports were closing at an average rate of two per week. Over the past 10 years, thanks to the efforts of the AOPA Airport Support Network, AOPA member volunteers at almost 2,000 airports across the country have played an integral role helping AOPA slow that trend. For more information on how you can help support your airport, visit AOPA Online.
Tennessee. Collegedale: When Tom Parson contacted David Torbett, the ASN volunteer at Collegedale Municipal Airport, regarding a set of restrictive operational rules proposed by airport management, both men began making calls to get the facts and find out what could be done to prevent undue penalties and restrictions on users. Parson met with the airport director, Frank Zarski, to gather data. Torbett followed up with the mayor of Collegedale, the airport director, and the city commission, advocating that they rescind their current proposal and form an advisory committee to work together toward achieving mutual goals for the airport's management and users. Torbett's action earned him a spot on the new pilot advisory committee that will help develop operating procedures and practices jointly with the town.
Iowa. Iowa City: The Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams, was centered around an Iowa farm. In real life, Field of Dreams could be a movie about Iowa City Airport, thanks to its ASN volunteer, Jay Honeck, who owns the Alexis Park Inn & Suites, located next door to the field. Honeck has championed the airport as a valuable resource and revenue source for the city, but he continues to face uphill battles against local politicos. For the past five years, Honeck has hosted a Fly-In Pool Party at the Alexis Park Inn & Suites the day before EAA AirVenture begins, offering visitors free food, a cool pool, and a perfect overnight stop just 200 miles from Oshkosh, making the airport the focal point of his city.
Because of the record number of visitors this year, Honeck proudly boasted, "We actually ran out of ramp space at Iowa City Airport." Elected officials certainly cannot overlook that!
Honeck is already planning for next year's event, so make sure you put it on your aviation "to do" list for 2008.
During the Annual Airport Support Network meeting at AOPA Expo in October, nearly 100 volunteers gathered to discuss the landscape of airport protection in the future, and a simple directive emerged: Build relationships in your community.
This month's ASN volunteer of the month, Mike Hathaway at Hawkins County Airport in Rogersville, Tennessee, is ahead of the game on his proactive approach to building relationships in his community. Like many AOPA members and ASN volunteers, Hathaway participates in youth aviation education programs such as Young Eagles to draw positive attention and interest to the airport's many benefits to Hawkins County.
One Saturday afternoon, Hathaway and his fellow airport supporters hosted more than 40 children and their parents at the airport, feeding them hot dogs, offering them airport tours, and taking the children on airplane rides. To add to the day's success, Hathaway was able to garner positive media attention for the airport by working with a local newspaper to cover the event. Hathaway was quoted several times throughout the story, and his words embody the spirit of airport protection in the future, "It's kind of a community outreach; it lets people know the airport is here and what we do." He added, "The airport ought to be like this every day."
The key to saving airports isn't a great mystery. All you need is a positive attitude about your airport and a willingness to share your enthusiasm for it within your community. The secret is to do this before problems arise. Here are some tips from Airport Support Network volunteers across the country offered during this year's annual Expo ASN meeting on how every airport supporter can get help to protect our local airports today and into the future:
AOPA offers guidance and online resources for protecting your local airport. To learn more about the Airport Support Network, visit the Web site and sign up today.