Air traffic in the United States has steadily grown since the end of the recession, and recent projections by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predict that it will continue to grow by an average of 2.2 percent each year over the next two decades. By 2034, the FAA forecasts, “U.S. commercial air carriers are projected to…transport 1.15 billion enplaned passengers a total of 1.47 trillion passenger miles.”
Such an increased demand puts pressure on our aviation system both in terms of its carrying capacity and its ability to maintain our high standards of safety for passengers and workers alike. But instead of having stable funding, the FAA has been undermined by senseless budget cuts, funding constraints, and the threat of a misguided austerity agenda in Washington. The 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act was delayed for more than three years with 23 extensions before finally being signed into law, and in 2013 sequestration forced the furlough of every FAA employee – all because too many in Congress lacked the political courage to face down extremists and do what needed to be done.
This year, the 2012 Reauthorization Act is due to expire, and members of Congress have a singular opportunity to deliver the aviation system that Americans want by giving the FAA stable, long-term funding in the next reauthorization.
As it stands, this complete and irresponsible lack of predictable funding has made it impossible for the FAA to plan for the future, making long-term improvement projects difficult to implement and causing safety concerns. Reckless budget cuts have had dangerous cascading effects: for one thing, preventative maintenance has been halted, and engineers and systems specialists must adhere to a fix-on-fail policy, waiting until equipment actually breaks before replacing it. Beyond the obvious resultant safety issues, these budget cuts also cause unnecessary air traffic delays, putting further strain on an already-stressed system. Plus, as of 2014, one-third of the FAA workforce – including air traffic controllers, aviation safety inspectors, and systems specialists – are eligible for retirement, creating an urgent need for new employees. Many critical employees of the FAA need to be trained for upwards of two to five years, and budgetary issues further constrain the FAA’s ability to hire and train the employees it needs today and in the future. Undoubtedly, the challenges at the FAA will give rise to legislative reform proposals – some poorly conceived and harmful – that will have to be carefully scrutinized to ensure they don’t undermine safety or harm the federal employees that staff the FAA.
In addition to providing stable funding for the FAA, the reauthorization bill must deal with aviation safety concerns that remain unaddressed such as flight crew fatigue, employee training, and the FAA’s inadequate oversight of aircraft repair work that is now outsourced at an alarming rate. And of course the anti-government crowd may once again peddle misguided (read: really bad) attempts to roll back or restrict existing aviation safety regulations.
Separately, there have also been efforts in the past to use FAA reauthorization legislation as a vehicle to return to the days of private airport security through privatizing transportation security officers (TSOs) at the Transportation Security Administration. If the goal is to maintain the highest level of safety and security in our aviation system it is critical that TSOs remain a part of the federal workforce and not be farmed out to profit-driven bidders in the private sector.
The U.S. boasts the best and safest aviation system in the world, and our airline system supports 11 million jobs. But without smart government policies and sufficient funding to address the long-term needs of the system and create good jobs, our aviation system faces increasing challenges to meeting demand safely and effectively. Such policies are within our reach, and at the end of February, TTD will unveil a plan for how the Administration and Congress can best address America’s aviation needs.