The nation’s 2,950 federally funded general aviation airports boost local economies and can serve as a community’s lifeline in a natural disaster or other emergency—but billions of dollars from the federal program that funds most GA airport projects has been reallocated to other projects in the past 10 years, AOPA President Mark Baker testified April 6 before a Senate subcommittee.
Baker appeared before the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation during a hearing on FAA Reauthorization: Perspectives on Rural Air Service and the General Aviation Community. The session focused on federal efforts to improve access and safety, and initiatives “that could bolster rural air service and the general aviation (GA) community.”
He highlighted the role general aviation airports play—despite the funding gaps—in humanitarian efforts and providing assistance in areas prone to natural disasters, often transforming a small rural airport into a community lifeline brought to life by pilots volunteering their time and their personal aircraft for rescue operations and humanitarian missions.
The active pilot community, however, has declined by about 30 percent between 1980 and 2015. Baker explained that AOPA has introduced the You Can Fly program—a series of initiatives “to build a more vibrant and resilient pilot community”—to combat that trend.
Baker fielded several questions from committee members about the ineffectiveness of the Non-Primary Entitlement Program, which he said is constrained by the program’s low level of funding in any year—$150,000 per non-primary airport for capital improvements—and by the struggle faced by many airport sponsors to put up the 10 percent local match.
In 2016, total program funds were roughly $440 million—but $329 million was carried over to the FAA’s discretionary fund, and reallocated to other non-NPE airport projects across the country, a problem that Baker set out in detail in written testimony submitted to the panel.
Over the past ten years more than $2 billion in NPE funds has been placed into the FAA discretionary fund and used for other airport projects around the country. Baker emphasized that AOPA stands ready to help develop solutions to the program’s shortcomings.
One of the most important factors in the declining numbers of active pilots is costs. AOPA credits Congress, and specifically the Committee, Baker said, with taking a major step to reduce costs by passing the medical reform legislation known as BasicMed, which was signed into law last July and will permit eligible pilots to fly without a third class medical certificate beginning May 1.
AOPA launched the You Can Fly program, consisting of a series of initiatives to support flying clubs, encourage best practices in flight training, get lapsed pilots back in the air, bring AOPA’s resources and expertise to pilot groups across the country, and invite high school students to learn more about careers in aviation and aerospace, to revitalize GA activity.
In response to senators’ questions, Baker noted that AOPA has not heard complaints from pilots about the current air traffic control system, which has been proposed for privatization in a budget outline released last month. (A similar proposal last year was supported by some major airlines and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, but failed to make it to the House floor.)
He added that he serves on the federal NextGen Advisory Committee, which he said functions well addressing the priorities outlined for the ATC system.
Baker reiterated AOPA’s continued and strong opposition to user fees, noting AOPA’s longstanding support for the current system by which Congress funds the FAA with excise taxes on fuel.
Safety is general aviation’s top priority, he said—as indicated by general aviation experiencing the safest year in history.
AOPA will work with the FAA, National Transportation Safety Board, and other stakeholders to promote safety and develop an even safer aviation system, Baker said.