On February 27, 2013, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing entitled “Implementation of the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act: One Year Later. Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), as was apparent by the memo he sent out regarding the hearing, set up the hearing long before the Federal Aviation Administration came out with its proposed budget cuts for the sequester. However, the week before the hearing, the FAA issued its proposed cuts to its budget to meet the demands of the sequester. See Closing Air Traffic Control Towers As A Result of the Sequester Just the Latest Chapter of Ongoing Dilemma About Little Used Air Traffic Towers. Because of that, there were very few questions about the FAA Reform Act and many questions about the FAA’s proposed cuts.
(UPDATE March, 22, 2013: See FAA Issues List of Towers to Close Due To Sequester for the list of Air Traffic Control Towers that the FAA has slated to close).
Subcommittee Chairman LoBiondo’s opening comments acknowledged this fact, stating that although designed to talk about progress on the FAA Reform Act, most of the time will be devoted to the sequestration cuts. This attitude was echoed by Ranking Member Rick Larsen (D-MN) as well as the full Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA). Full Committee Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV) took a slightly different tack and wanted to know how the sequester would impact the aviation programs that affect rural America such as Essential Air Service and Air Ambulance.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta – the only witness – told the Subcommittee that the FAA is working diligently to bring the FAA Reform Act to fruition, but the sequester is a potentially big bump in the road. He then laid out how the sequester is different than the shut down of the FAA in 2011 when “essential” personnel were allowed to keep working. First, Administrator Huerta said that all of FAA’s accounts were affected, thus all employees in all business lines were affected. Second, even essential personnel are affected, because the sequester requires that cuts come proportionally from all of the FAA’s accounts.
Part of the problem, Administrator Huerta continued, was that a large portion of the Department of Transportation’s budget is exempt from sequester. Thus, the FAA is burdened with taking on about 60% of Transportation’s portion of the sequester. Moreover, within the FAA’s budget, the airport grant program (AIP) is exempt from the sequester thereby further limiting where the cuts can be made.
Despite the focus on the sequester, Administrator Huerta did mention a couple of items related to the implementation of the FAA Reform Act and other aviation topics:
- FAA is working “around the clock” on the ensuring that the 787 is safe to fly before the FAA will allow it back in service in the U.S.
- Substantial progress is being made on ensuring that pilots get the training they need to fly the aircraft, and the rest they need when they do fly.
- FAA is moving forward with its Unmanned Air Vehicle program testing to understand the operational issues while meeting the public’s concern about privacy.
- ERAM is currently in place at half the sites.
- The FAA is collaborating with industry to develop satellite routes, which it projects to create $2.3 million in fuel savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
In conclusion, Administrator Huerta wanted to remind the Subcommittee that aviation is the U.S.’s largest export industry, representing $1.3 trillion in trade and 10,000,000 jobs.
Most of the questions focused on how the FAA came up with the list of tower closures and reduced hours. Administrator Huerta said that the method was developed to create the least impact on the largest number of travelers. However, unique characteristics of the each of the towers was considered so that the impact of the closure would be lessened. Administrator Huerta reminded the Subcommittee several times that if the FAA were take a tower off of the closure there would have be a cut somewhere else. In response to Rep. Daniel Lipinski’s (D-IL) question Administrator Huerta indicated that all of the actions that the FAA would be taking would compromise efficiency in the NAS.
Many of the Subcommittee wanted to know why more consultants were not cut, instead of furloughing employees, which would have a dire effect on the efficiency of the National Air System. Administrator Huerta said that consultant contracts were cut, but each line of business had to be cut proportionally. The Republicans tend to feel that the cuts could be made through better financial management. Rep. Shuster stated that he believes that the FAA has the flexibility to move money around so that furloughs could be avoided. Administrator Huerta replied that the sequester limited the FAA’s flexibility, and to the extent that he can, he, too, wants to limit furloughs.
However, one the session’s most interesting question was from Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) when he asked whether any of the cuts that are attributable to the sequester process should be made regardless of the sequestration. This relates to an underlying feeling that the FAA has been trying to close ATC towers at airports that it believes to be underutilized. The sequester, some believe, provides cover for closing towers without having to justify it politically. Administrator Huerta did not answer Rep. Capuano’s question directly. Instead, he danced around it by stating that the cuts may compromise efficiency but the FAA is willing to do that in order to maintain a safe system. Whether it would be a good idea to close some of the towers on the list, regardless of the sequester was left for another day. Rep. Capuano let the Administrator’s answer stand by stating that what the FAA Administrator is saying is “the sequester as the FAA will be implementing it is basically a stupid idea.” Which, in the end, no one disagreed with.
UPDATE March 15, 2013:
From sources, it now appears that the FAA has sent letters to the airports that have towers slated for closure stating that the FAA would announce its final selection of airport slated for “elimination of funding for the tower operations” on Friday, March, 22, 2013, instead of Monday, March 18, 2013.
J. David Grizzle, Chief Operating Officer of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization, appears to have issued this release on Friday, March 15, 2013 to the affected airports:
As you are aware, the FAA has offered to airport sponsors for 189 airports within the FAA’s contract tower program the opportunity to explain why the elimination of funding for the tower operations at their airports would adversely affect the national interest.
The FAA has received a very large number of responses. In order to review comprehensively the submission on behalf of each airport, the FAA will delay the date of its final decision and announcement of which airport tower operations it intends to cease to fund.