Partisan gridlock threatens aviation funding

Transportation advocates are worried that aviation funding will become the next congressional standoff after several rounds of partisan budget fights in the nation’s capital.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s funding bill, which was last approved in 2012, is scheduled to expire in 2015.

Lawmakers in both parties say that renewing the FAA’s funding will be a priority next year, but Congress has been mired in a debate about road and transit funding for most of the year that could cause turbulence down the line for the aviation industry.

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Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxFirst US flight to Cuba's capital in over 50 years lands in Havana Feds want ‘driver mode’ for smart phones Dems call for probe of company after Alabama pipeline blast MORE has encouraged lawmakers to finish the surface transportation funding bill before the FAA deadline draws near.

“I think that conversation is going to be more complicated if we’re still trying to deal with highways and transit next year,” Foxx said in July of the upcoming FAA funding battle.

“We need to get [highway funding] done now so that we can clear the space to deal with and focus on aviation,” the chief added.

The FAA was partially shuttered for nearly two weeks in 2011 when lawmakers allowed the agency’s funding to expire during the debate that resulted in the 2012 appropriations bill.

The FAA was also forced to furlough air traffic controllers in 2013 when sequester budget cuts were first implemented, though Congress quickly passed a fix after airline passengers complained about flight delays.

Foxx said he was excited about the forthcoming FAA funding debate, despite the agency’s recent history with budget battles. 

“I think there are some issues in aviation that are on the table now about the way we structure, how we finance, how we set the aviation sector up to compete in a 21st century economy, that we’ll have a chance to work with industry, work with other stakeholders to help resolve,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to having those conversations,” Foxx continued.

It is no guarantee that lawmakers will easily approve another round of FAA funding, however.

The agency’s last funding bill became bogged down in discussions over the labor rights of airline and railroad employees, resulting in more than 20 temporary extensions being passed before a multi-year appropriations bill was approved.

The FAA can ill-afford another run of funding stopgaps because it is planning to switch the nation’s airplane navigation from World War II-based radar technology to a satellite-based system.

The new system, known as NextGen, is expected to cost the FAA about $40 billion to fully implement. The agency is planning to pay for the system gradually, making each appropriations measure it receives crucial.

Foxx said the satellite-based navigation system has too much potential to have its funding be placed in jeopardy.

“We are very bullish on the work that is involved in NextGen and basically bringing our airspace from World War II-radar technology to 21st Century GPS technology,” Foxx said during an event in Washington earlier this month.

“We think it will make airspace more efficient, create more capacity in the airspace and make airspace cleaner that way,” Foxx continued.

Republicans have said that it will be important to pass another FAA bill quickly next year as well, though they have focused more on regulatory reforms they would like to implement at the agency.

“To pass a new reauthorization that will keep us competitive, we have to begin laying the groundwork now,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a speech in December.

“We shouldn’t settle for just another reauthorization of programs, or for making adjustments at the margins of the system,” Shuster continued. “We may have the world’s best aviation system for the moment, but that title comes with no guarantee. We have an obligation to improve our system any way we can, with bold, innovative ideas.”

Shuster identified airline regulations as an area he would like to focus on in any FAA funding renewal legislation.

“Our global competitors are closing the gap quickly,” he said.

“For example, air carriers in the Middle East and China are emerging as top carriers in terms of revenue and capacity,” Shuster said. “In these regions, governments are strategically using airlines to drive economic growth — and they’re not necessarily concerned about turning a profit. In some cases the government itself owns and operates the airlines, and those carriers benefit from low fees and taxes, low labor costs, and relaxed labor regulations.”