Aviation industry seeks stimulus money to cut delays at the airport

As millions of Americans board planes this holiday, commercial airlines and the private and business aviation industry are setting aside a longstanding lobbying fight to ask Congress to add money for a new air traffic control system in a second stimulus.

The two lobbies have been split over how to pay for the new system, which would use satellite-based instead of ground-based radar. But they agree that the NextGen system would reduce flight delays and is needed to meet growing demand for air travel. And they say the funding would help an aviation industry struggling economically.

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The Air Transport Association, a trade group of commercial airlines, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association were among 19 trade associations that signed a recent letter to members of Congress urging that they include money for the so-called NextGen air traffic control upgrade in a second stimulus.

“Everyone in the aviation industry has been in favor of modernizing air traffic infrastructure,” said Chris Dancy, a spokesman with AOPA, a little known but powerful lobbying force in Washington.

“All agree that NextGen is critical,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for ATA.

Airlines want general aviation to pick up more of the tab for funding the Federal Aviation Administration and by extension the radar upgrade. The general aviation lobby, which includes business jets and private aircraft, opposes the commercial airlines’ efforts to shift the costs.

An estimated 200 million travelers are expected to board a U.S. airline over a 12-day stretch that includes the Thanksgiving holiday. A new radar system could accommodate more flights because it would more precisely track aircraft location. Dancy said the ground-based system monitors planes at 12 second intervals, but the satellite-based system could track them every second.

The Federal Aviation Administration spends around $800 million a year on NextGen, but a new FAA bill would likely include a dedicated funding stream that could accelerate deployment.

The industries tried to get on board the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion stimulus Congress passed earlier this year. But lawmakers rejected the lobbying push because the NextGen system wasn’t “shovel ready” and therefore would not given the jolt to the economy the stimulus was designed to provide.

Jim Berard, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) has not decided whether to request that appropriators include money for NextGen in a second stimulus.

He said lobbyists for both the airline and general aviation industry have requested money for equipment they would need to use the new satellite based system.

“It is a cost they’d rather not undertake,” he said.

A global positioning system that would need to be installed in cockpits would cost airlines thousands of dollars per plane, Berard said.
The letter to Congress this week also speaks to a shared economic pain in the aviation sector as a whole since the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

“Manufacturers have sustained significant job losses and a slowdown in order, deliveries, and production schedules,” the groups wrote.

“NextGen deployment will employ thousands of engineers, software developers and other high-tech workers to support a transition from a ground based radar infrastructure system to satellite based infrastructure,” the letter states.

The system is also expected to reduce carbon emissions from aircraft because it would reduce fuel use.