The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is at a crossroads-and the future of U.S. aviation hangs in the balance.
Last month President George W. Bush delivered to Congress a proposed Fiscal Year 2005 federal budget that would cut $417 million (16 percent) from FAA's capital investment account and provide less-than-current-services funding for air traffic control (ATC) system operations and maintenance. At the same time, FAA created a performance-based Air Traffic Organization (ATO), effectively converting the nation's ATC function into a business-like enterprise.
These are not trivial events. Rather, they signal a potential sea change in the level and quality of air traffic services being delivered today, and in what the future holds for the U.S. air transportation system. The future is a potentially frightening one.
Although the purpose of converting to the ATO is to apply private-enterprise principles to the provision of air traffic services, the ATO remains a government entity and must continue to operate within the confines of the federal budget and appropriations process. This means that the ATO's income bears no direct relationship to the amount of revenue generated through user fees. Most significantly, ATO's available resources do not increase along with increases in demand for air traffic services. And if the President's FY 2005 budget proposal is any indication, this funding picture is not going to improve any time soon.
The ATO will respond to this funding reality in the only way possible. It will get leaner. The mantra is managing to available resources-and a reduced level of resources at that-rather than responding to demand with increased service. Every modernization initiative must be justified by an immediate and measurable payback. Projects that deliver economies and efficiencies for the air traffic service provider will be favored over those that provide new or improved customer benefits. And in the current austere budget environment, long-term investment in promising concepts and technologies will be severely constricted.
But the future will be upon us before we know it. History tells us that the current economic downturn is temporary. Most airports are already reporting passenger traffic increases approaching pre-9/11 levels. Unless we make prudent investments today in infrastructure and promising aviation technologies, tomorrow's air transportation system will be plagued by inefficiencies, congestion, delays and operating constraints, all of which will be detrimental to commerce, economic prosperity and global competitiveness.
We cannot wait and simply react to this looming crisis. Rather, the Air Traffic Control Association advocates the following, proactive approach.
The aviation community must join together and urge the Congress to resist the administration's proposed cuts to FAA capital investment and research and development (R&D) accounts. And the proposed level of operations funding must be thoroughly scrubbed to assure that the air traffic service function is well resourced. Otherwise, the performance of the ATC system could limit the recovery of the air transportation system. In addition, NASA's aeronautics research capability is essential to FAA's mission and must be funded generously. And knowledge and technology must be transferred from the Defense Department's $69-billion R&D funding to the civilian sector.
There are core technologies that everyone agrees will be central to any future aviation system. The first of these is an air transportation system-wide information network, through which all stakeholders can derive whatever information is needed for safe, efficient operations. The second is a capable, reliable controller pilot data link communications (CPDLC) system, through which data can be transmitted. The third is a sophisticated tool set enabling collaborative decision-making among all participants in the air traffic management system. All of these technologies enhance safety, and all can be used to increase operating efficiency, as well as overall system efficiency and capacity. But a clear direction to proceed with development and implementation, and a healthy flow of resources must be applied now if these technologies are to be available in time to meet the demand we know is coming.
The federal government must lead and assume responsibility for determining the direction of the future air transportation system. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta is leading a cabinet-level, interagency effort to develop a Next Generation Air Transportation National System Plan. ATCA supports this activity with the expectation that it will be well managed and adequately resourced. And, unlike numerous previous studies relegated to bookshelves, this effort must yield a product that can be agreed to by the entire community and is capable of implementation.
Paul P. Bollinger Jr. is president of the Air Traffic Control Association.