The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is facing a situation to which it is not accustomed. President George W. Bush submitted on Feb. 2 a $2.39-trillion budget for FY2005. But despite its gargantuan size, the proposed budget calls for a 16 percent cut in spending on air traffic control (ATC) equipment and facilities, according to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report. That would reduce spending by $471 million, though it still would leave more than $2 billion in FAA's facilities and equipment budget.
FAA is not the only target for funding cuts. The proposed budget also calls for reduced spending on environment, agriculture and energy programs. Not surprisingly, the military and homeland security sectors would enjoy funding increases.
But, in the case of FAA, the budget cuts are accompanied by a slap on the wrist. WSJ reports that government audits are "critical of the agency's spending habits," and "FAA is under pressure to rein in spending, which has expanded 70 percent since 1996, to $14 billion this year."
FAA has proposed cutting about $400 million in capital spending in FY2005. New technology programs probably face greater scrutiny in the FAA than ever before. An industry source reports that FAA has considered shelving the local area augmentation system (LAAS) program, constraining the expansion of the wide area augmentation system (WAAS) and limiting automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's facilities in Florida and Arizona and, perhaps, to part of the U.S. east coast. And FAA already has severely limited funding for controller pilot data link communications (CPDLC), restricting program activities to Miami. The Capstone project reportedly will remain funded, an appropriate decision, given Alaska's desperate need for improved air safety and its suitability as a test bed for new technologies.
Of course, the president's proposed budget must still win over a majority of the members of Congress. Nevertheless, FAA apparently is preparing to make some tough cost-cutting decisions–a worthwhile process that may well give the agency a clearer focus on how to proceed with its modernization efforts. Indeed, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey claims she is tightening the controls on projects that lack "a sound business case," according to WSJ. That's an obvious first step.
As appealing as many technologies can be–conceptually–they don't always cut muster–practically–especially in the cost-conscious air transport community. Now that the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control segment has become performance-based, it is appropriate that the agency advance new technologies that are accepted by and truly beneficial to the aviation community.
Also encouraging is FAA's willingness to look beyond its own structure. It recently invited Nav Canada's president and CEO, John Crichton, to speak on how to transition into a performance-based organization. From Nav Canada and other agencies around the world, FAA also might gain more knowledge on how to effectively implement new technologies.
In a similar vein, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has stated that he plans to establish a multi-agency office, based at FAA, to develop new ideas and technologies. Though it is a worthy goal–having an ongoing collaborative working arrangement beyond the individual program level between, say, NASA personnel and FAA personnel–the history of interagency cooperation at that level is not encouraging. We wish the secretary good luck.
At a time when funding for new technology programs is being squeezed, FAA might do well to advance already proven technologies. For example, in order to exploit the benefits of required navigation performance (RNP), the agency should accelerate theï¿½ establishment of RNP procedures and performance standards, a process that, thus far, has moved at a snail's pace. RNP would represent a giant step toward Secretary Mineta's proclaimed goal of tripling airspace capacity in the United States over the next 15 to 20 years.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently reported a survey by the Harris Poll that found three out of four Americans believe the agency "is doing a good job." In ways it is.
But the progress of its performance-based Air Traffic Organization (ATO) and its response to new economic realities will determine whether FAA can do its job much better.