The general aviation community made it clear over the past year that user fees are not the best way to fund the nation’s aviation system, and President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2011 showed that those voices were heard.
The administration’s Office of Management and Budget released a budget Feb. 1 that would hold the line on most aviation-related programs while investing more money in airspace modernization. The budget does not propose new aviation user fees, as last year’s budget suggested it might.
The budget requests $16.5 billion for the FAA in fiscal year 2011, a 3-percent increase over 2010. That funding would include $1.1 billion for NextGen air transportation system modernization—an increase of almost a third—and $3.5 billion for the Airport Improvement Program, the same as in previous years.
Conspicuously absent in the proposal for 2011 are the “direct user charges” alluded to in last year’s budget. The administration had proposed replacing some excise taxes with the fees starting in 2011, but the proposal faced opposition from AOPA, other industry groups, and members of Congress.
“We have waged a twelve-month campaign since the moment we learned of a planned $9.6 billion fee,” said AOPA President Craig Fuller. “AOPA members stood strong against the proposal, and general aviation organizations worked together to prevent the realization of a policy that could have crippled GA.”
Shortly after the release of the budget, the Department of Transportation confirmed in a conference call with industry stakeholders that no user fees were on the agenda; Fuller thanked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for their absence.
The budget sustains the funding structure that has long served the FAA: a time-tested system of aviation fuel taxes, ticket taxes, and a general fund contribution. The House has supported this funding structure in recent years, and more than 100 members of the House told the president in October that a user fee proposal would be a “non-starter.”
The idea of raising money from aviation user fees has persistently re-emerged in White House budgets from year to year, and Fuller said that the association will stay vigilant in working to keep them off the table in the future; even bad ideas have a way of resurfacing. For now, he said, the absence of user fees in the budget proposal bodes well for GA.
“The decision not to include user fees in the 2011 budget is encouraging, and it allows all of us in the aviation community to focus on important priorities like air traffic control modernization, keeping airports open, and growing the pilot population,” he said.
While most aviation funding in the proposal remained steady or increased only slightly, the administration is requesting a 32-percent increase in funding for NextGen air transportation system modernization. The $1.1 billion for NextGen would go toward implementing technologies such as ADS-B and LPV approaches, establishing the infrastructure for NextGen facilities, and conducting research and development.
AOPA has been extensively involved in planning for the transition to satellite-based navigation and surveillance, and the association recently participated in a task force that produced recommendations for implementing NextGen in the near- to mid-term. Noting “unprecedented consensus” among industry groups in the task force, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt pointed out in a conference call with stakeholders that $403 million of the money requested for NextGen would directly address recommendations from the task force.
NextGen funding for 2011 would include $2 million for research, engineering, and development of alternative fuels for GA—a line item not seen in the 2009 or 2010 budget. That would add federal dollars to the search for an alternative to leaded avgas; more information about the funding may surface as additional details of the budget are released.
Funding for airports would remain the same as in the last two years: $3.5 billion.
Money from the federal Airport Improvement Program goes to projects at airports across the country that will enhance the safety and security of America’s airport system, allow for increased capacity and efficient use of existing capacity, improve the compatibility of airports with surrounding communities, and provide sufficient access to an airport for the majority of the American public.
The level of funding for the program has remained steady since fiscal year 2009, although airports had an additional boost of $1.1 billion that year from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. If the jobs bill the president has been promoting passes Congress this year, it may include additional money for airport infrastructure projects in fiscal years 2010 and 2011.
The Transportation Security Administration, while not affiliated with the FAA, determines what sort of security measures and screenings are required for aviation users. This year, the TSA comprised 14 percent of the $56.3 billion budget request for the Department of Homeland Security.
The TSA funding would provide for a total personnel increase of about 5,000 people; the majority of new items are related to deployment of new screening technologies, not GA initiatives.
The president’s budget indicates the direction the administration wants to take government programs and provides a starting point for the legislative budgeting process, but it is not a final say on the amount of money that flows to agencies and how.
After more details of the White House budget blueprint are released, Congress will consider the budget and work out its own priorities in a budget resolution. That resolution gives direction for appropriations bills, which ultimately determine how much funding goes to each department.
Important bills to watch this year include the FAA reauthorization and the DOT appropriations bills. The House passed a reauthorization in 2009, but the Senate has yet to pass its version of the bill.