FAA Administrator Michael Huerta voiced his concerns about the sequestration government spending cuts during a speech at an aviation conference in New Jersey Monday.
In March, the sequester reduced FAA’s 2013 $16 billion operating budget by $637 million, forcing the agency to furlough its air traffic controllers, leading to flight delays prior to a legislative fix that transferred funds from the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) to restore funding and remove the furloughs for the controllers. The House Appropriations Committee’s proposed 2014 budget would reduce the agency’s spending by $756 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
During his speech before the New Jersey Alliance for Action, Huerta highlighted progress that the agency has made in shifting from a radar-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based system, but also stated future funding unpredictability threatens NextGen infrastructure investments.
"This fiscal uncertainty challenges our ability to make the investments that we need to support modernization. This is not a sustainable course of action. It’s no way to run a business … and it’s no way to run a government," said Huerta.
Huerta said he is supportive of the 2014 budget proposed by President Barack Obama, which would replace the sequester cuts with more immediate investment and deficit reduction spread out in a more balanced method than the current sequestration cuts allow for. Obama’s budget also includes $1 billion reserved for NextGen investments.
During testimony at a House aviation subcommittee hearing in July, Huerta told lawmakers that the House’s proposed 2014 budget would force the agency to delay NextGen funding in order to keep the current air traffic system operating safely and efficiently.
The FAA chief’s support to replace the sequester was recently echoed by Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) President Marion Blakey, who told the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit last week that "chances are excellent that the investment accounts will be hit the hardest." Blakey, who served as FAA administrator between 2002 and 2007, supports repealing the sequester cuts altogether.
In a statement Wednesday, Rockwell Collins Director of Strategic Initiatives for Commercial Systems, Rick Heinrich said "a fragile U.S. economy, including sequestration, makes it even more difficult" to accelerate the operational benefits associated with NextGen for airspace users.
The most visible effects of sequestration were the furloughs of air traffic controllers, an effect that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is strongly against repeating.
"NATCA is communicating a very simple message to Congress and the Administration – don’t let furloughs happen again," a spokesperson for NATCA told Avionics Magazine in an emailed statement. "NATCA is also urging policymakers to find a long-term solution to replace the sequester so that critical projects like NextGen are not negatively impacted. Until there is a clearer picture of how funding will be provided and what flexibility agencies will have, NATCA will not speculate on how specific programs will be affected."
Congress has not yet approved a 2014 budget, so its unclear how the sequester cuts will impact NextGen investments, though unless lawmakers approve a new plan, another $109.3 billion–an increase from the $85 billion implemented for 2013–in across-the-board spending cuts will be implemented beginning in October.