But Is Short On Details For FAA Funding
Marion Blakey addressed a packed house at the AOPA Expo 2006
General Assembly Friday morning. AOPA President Phil Boyer's intro
was full of praise for Blakey's performance during her nearly
five-year tenure as FAA administrator -- and the audience was
mostly receptive to the compliments.
But, canny politician that she is, Blakey opened her own
comments with an acknowledgement of the big elephant in the room...
Saying she would come back to that, Blakey changed her vector
slightly and sent some warm fuzzies back to AOPA. She lauded the
intense focus on safety she'd seen during her visit to Palm Springs
and AOPA Expo. The NTSB recorded the lowest number of aviation
fatalities last year with Blakey noting the biggest improvement in
She gave a lot of credit for GA improvement in flight safety to
the efforts of AOPA's Air Safety Foundation (ASF). Saying a
partnership exists between the FAA and the ASF, Blakey made a
surprise presentation to the foundation's director, Bruce
Landsberg. For its efforts in promoting GA flight safety, Blakey
gave the ASF the brand-new Thomas H. Wardleigh Award for aviation
Blakey next discussed future changes to the National Air Space
(NAS). She made it clear the FAA is placing its hopes on Automatic
Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast (ADS-B). "ADS-B is our
moonshot," said Blakey as she described an $80 million budget
request to develop the technology. She says current FAA plans have
ADS-B fully integrated in the NAS by 2013.
Calling it "...a totally different system," Blakey says plans
for the "NextGen" NAS are "coming into focus." But aside from
committing to ADS-B, Blakey didn't share many details of the plan.
She says to expect a clearer picture by January and anticipates
having a detailed "blueprint" by spring.
As part of that effort, the Administrator announced a
newly-formed recommendatory committee she called the Board of
Performance and Cost Review. Without going into too much detail,
she says the board will review FAA plans and make recommendations
on helping the agency meet new funding and regulatory goals. Then
in another surprise announcement, Blakey said she wanted to ensure
GA was represented -- by appointing AOPA President Phil Boyer to a
seat on the board. The board first meets in January…
hopefully Boyer didn't have other plans!
Changing gears slightly, Blakey reassured the audience of the
FAA's commitment to keep airports open. "The FAA will not sit idly
when federally-funded airports face closure," she said.
Blakey slipped smoothly into the user fee briar patch by urging
the audience to consider how all the future changes she described
will be funded. She said along with changes to the NAS must come
changes in the way the system is financed. She claimed the aviation
trust fund will last only two months after the current funding
authorization expires next year. But, she reassured the audience,
the FAA doesn't "…want a funding system that stifles GA,"
nor does it look for a "broad system of user fees" for GA.
Long on rhetoric, but short on details, Blakey waxed
philosophical saying AOPA members, as business people, understand
how "...a revenue steam has got to be cost-based." While saying she
supports continuing general fund contributions as a partial means
of FAA funding, she warned a cost allocation study is under
In an apparent slap at the Airline Transport Association, and a
bone to her audience, Blakey ended her speech saying any new
funding scheme won't be based on "a blip is a blip is a blip."
In what has become a tradition for events such as these, Blakey
took a few questions from the audience before rushing to the
airport and winging off to India.
One member tried, unsuccessfully, to pin Blakey down on what she
meant by "no broad user fees." He stressed GA has paid user fees
for years in the form of taxes at the gas pump. Again, Blakey
refused to go into details on what FAA will do, but she did say
what it won't -- no system based on a per-passenger fee such as
that used by the airlines. She said the FAA has lost money on
that system as planes and passenger loads shrink. She explained
that fewer passengers on a particular flight reduces the fee
collected, but the FAA's workload remains the same.
She ended comments on the question with the caveat that she
"...cannot predict the outcome of the reauthorization process," but
prefers fees to taxes because fees can be adjusted when
requirements change. (Hmmmmmm... -- ed)
Another member was concerned about the way he perceived the FAA
as treating its controllers during recent contract renegotiations.
He asked Blakey, "How can we trust you after the way you treat your
controllers?" Blakey responded she was only able to hold on to her
experienced controllers by offering an incentive package that sees
average pay and incentives for a five-year veteran equaling
$185,000 per year. With the coming budget crisis, and realizing the
major portion of the FAA's budget comprises salary, the agency was
forced to change pay rates for new hires. She says controllers
signing on today will only earn $30,000 the first year, but
compensation goes up to $85,000 after five years. She says the FAA
thinks it's a competitive offer because they have 3000 resumes on
Another asked what the FAA is doing to promote and support WAAS.
Blakey says the agency is committed to commissioning WAAS
approaches as quickly as possible, but admits it's going slowly --
mainly because of the $1 million price tag each new approach
In one of the morning's lighter moments, a member commented he
had the solution to dealing with Chicago's late-night destruction
of Meigs Field. "I would have just shut down O'Hare," he said.
Blakey's response? "Why didn't I think of that?"
ANN spoke with attendee Bob Luten of Spirit Lake, ID after
Blakey's presentation. Luten says he firmly believes the gas tax is
the right way to collect funds from users. "If there's a problem
changing the tax from year to year, we ought to fix that, but leave
the system to work as it has for years," said Luten.
Greg Erikson of Wayne, IL says be believes Blakey is a good FAA
administrator and really cares about GA, but feels she should have
more clearly stated her position on the user fee issue. Erickson
said, "She can't predict the outcome of the budget process, but she
can strongly influence the way alternatives are presented to
Erickson was upset that no one challenged Blakey on her
statement the aviation trust fund would run out two months after
the current funding authorization expires. "I don't believe that
for a minute," he said, "From everything I've read from AOPA, EAA
and other organizations watching the situation, it seems they're
still putting money in faster than they can spend it."