At Least Two Want More Hearings On FAA's Accounting Of The
"Disingenuous." That's a word Congressman Lynn Westmoreland
likes to describe what he suspects might be the FAA's
characterization of the looming crisis in the Aviation Trust
"I think that's a pretty good way to put it," he told ANN, one
day after his subcommittee conducted hearings on the possibility of
imposing aviation user fees on general aviation owners and pilots.
"It's a little disingenuous."
Speaking from his office at the Capitol, Westmoreland said it's
time to look at the way the FAA keeps the Trust Fund's books.
"It's awfully peculiar that the Trust Fund was more than doing
its job up until 1999, when we saw this tremendous spike in the
FAA's cost of doing business," he said. "There are just some things
there that I think need to be answered as to why the Trust Fund was
working perfectly until a certain point, then it wasn't. I think
there's going to be a few more hearings on this before a decision
Fellow subcommittee member Sam Graves (R-MO) was equally as
skeptical one day after the hearings.
"I think there's a lot to that. I really do. We've obviously
seen costs go up a little bit with FAA. I do think there's a little
bit of a manufacturing process going on here with creating a
crisis," Graves told ANN.
As ANN reported Wednesday, leaders from NBAA,
AOPA, GAMA and NATA were on Capitol Hill to testify before
Westmoreland's subcommittee on why aviation user fees would be a
very bad idea.Some even suggested that pilots would be
more tempted to circumvent vital safety services rather than pay
Graves, a GA pilot and EAA member, agreed.
"For some reason, there
are folks out there who see this huge pot of money just waiting to
be tapped into -- and that's general aviation," he said. "That
couldn't be farther from the truth. What it's going to lead us to
is safety issues. It's going to lead us to a lot of folks just
turned off to aviation or who can't afford it. It's expensive now.
And the group that's being looked at to bring more revenue in is
the group that is the least burden on the system."
But the FAA and some think tanks differ with that opinion. Many
believe the airlines' complaint that, while commercial aviation
pays 90-percent of the cost for America's air transportation
infrastructure and services, they're only incurring about
70-percent of the costs.
"The problem that we face is that the status of the Aviation
Trust Fund is inextricably tied to the fortunes of the aviation
industry," FAA Administrator Marion Blakey testified Wednesday. She
pointed out that an estimated 52 percent of the Trust Fund revenue
comes from the Passenger Ticket Tax, which is assessed at 7.5
percent of the price of a domestic ticket. "While low fares are
good news for the passenger, they spell trouble for the Trust Fund
with its heavy reliance on the ticket tax as its primary source of
Blakey said Trust Fund revenues are down significantly from the
levels that were projected prior to the September 11th terrorist
attacks. The impact of September 11th, combined with weak economic
conditions and lower airfares, resulted in three consecutive years
of declining Trust Fund revenues, and the uncommitted cash balance
in the Trust Fund has been dramatically reduced –- from $7.3
billion at the end of fiscal year 2001, to $2.4 billion at the end
of fiscal year 2004.
"The FAA needs a stable source of funding that is based both on
our costs and the services we provide so that we can meet our
mission in an extremely dynamic business environment. Airline
ticket prices are not related to any real measure of productivity
for the FAA. Regardless of how many operations we run through
the national airspace system or how quickly we can certify new
aircraft products and technologies, or how we continue to drive
down the already low accident rate, the primary source of trust
fund receipts is linked to the price of a ticket. That
approach will not sustain us into the future," Blakey said.
But the Georgia
Congressman is skeptical about the nature of the pending Trust Fund
"That's the thing about looking into some of these agencies,"
Westmoreland told ANN. "You've got to really find out what kind of
accounting practices they use."
"We have to look at what the Trust Fund was originally designed
for," said Graves. "The Trust Fund was designed for infrastructure
improvements -- to improve our airports, to fix runways, build more
runways and the reliever airports. General revenue was used to fund
the operations cost of the FAA. Well, now you've gotten into a
system where we've seen general revenue appropriations dwindle over
the years... and a shift to where we're depending on the Aviation
Trust Fund to pick up the tab for operational costs. We need to get
back to the way that it was originally designed."
As for claims that the Trust might be sorely depleted by the
time the FAA is up for reauthorization, in 2007, Westmoreland said,
"In 1999," he said, "the cost of the FAA went straight up. Now,
it's been kind of level for the past six years. The revenues have
stayed about the same, with a little dip in 2001. Now it's even
gone back up a little bit. I'm not sure if they changed their
accounting practices... or what part of what they're trying to do
that's mandated by [Congress] that the government's not willing to
"I would like to know what they are using to justify moving in
this direction," Graves said. "What crisis is out there?"
But the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-FL) seems to
have already bought into the idea that something needs to change
before the Aviation Trust Fund is depleted. The FAA's claims that a
crisis is in the works "raises the short-term question, given the
uncertainty surrounding these revenue projections and the
possibility that revenues will be even less than currently
forecast, what if anything should be done now to ensure the
uncommitted cash balance does not reach zero before the next
aviation reauthorization bill takes effect in fiscal year
"I'm not the type of person who has a government agency come in
and say 'That's the way it is, we've gotta have money.' They have
to show me," said the Missouri Congressman. "I want to crunch some