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Thursday, May 1, 2008

FAA-Airline Snafu May Speed Reauthorization

The ongoing controversy caused by FAA surveillance of U.S. airline maintenance programs may spur resolution of a long-standing dispute in Washington over the FAA.

The controversy was triggered by findings that agency inspectors were too cozy with Southwest Airlines, allowing it to continue using Boeing 737s on revenue flights in violation of structural-inspection airworthiness directives. Embarrassed by the scandal, FAA higher-ups launched a massive campaign of ramp checks and paperwork reviews that led airlines to ground aircraft and cancel thousands of flights.

In the FAA’s defense, it has been forced by Congress and presidential administrations to work with roughly the same number of safety inspectors it had in 1978, before the airline industry was deregulated. Since then, the number of airline and aircraft have increased dramatically. However, you don’t survive in Washington’s bureaucracy by blaming congressional funding antics for agency shortcomings. So the FAA has had to take beatings from Congress and the media for problems that Congress largely created.

The flight delays that resulted from the more stringent inspections added to mounting public frustration due to airline mistreatment of passengers. That has led some in Congress to explore whether they can move the stalled FAA reauthorization bill, which is a key legal underpinning of the very existence of the agency (and permits it to spend money). With the public furor, Congress can’t be seen as holding up funding for the FAA (which it has, because of disputes over competing funding schemes). As a result, the Helicopter Assn International reports, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va), who chairs the Senate Commerce aviation subcommittee, was meeting with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), head of the Senate Finance Committee, to hammer out a deal on reauthorization. It remains to be seen whether the deal with favor the airline industry’s effort to foist FAA operating costs on general aviation through "user fees" or the GA industry’s argument that the funding approach of the past proportionately distributes costs based on which operators benefit most from the FAA’s services.

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