By Marion C. Blakey
February 15, 2011
The House and Senate have each declared passage of a new FAA Authorization bill a top legislative priority, very welcome news after more than three years of short-term extensions. Air transportation is a proven economic engine; passage of this bill is an investment in our nation’s economic recovery.
The U.S. air transportation system has been the world’s gold standard for more than half a century. But to remain so, we need to bring our system into the 21st Century. Air service demand will return to pre-recession levels, but along with the return of that demand will come the return of gridlock – you can count on it.
The best means of addressing the gridlock to come is acceleration of the full deployment and implementation the Next Generation Air Transportation System. That makes funding NextGen a government investment, not government spending. Even in these tough economic times, it makes more sense to accelerate NextGen than slow it down. Cutting NextGen will ultimately cost the government and our economy much more than it will save.
One of the larger challenges facing our ability to realize NextGen’s enormous benefits is the issue of establishing a sound business case for equipping airlines with upgraded avionics systems. Quite frankly, without equipage there is no NextGen.
Innovative and careful structuring of government support for equipage can help resolve the obstacles to full implementation of NextGen. However, with the nation’s need to address the growing federal deficit, it is important also to look at ways to leverage the available private-sector capital markets.
To this end, AIA recommends language in the FAA Reauthorization bill that encourages funding equipage with the participation of private-sector investment capital. FAA should have the authority to enter into government-guaranteed loan arrangements that can be used in innovative ways to incentivize the retrofitting of commercial and general aviation aircraft with NextGen avionics equipment.
Critical to leveraging available private-sector capital markets is reducing risk to stimulate investment. A key message from industry throughout the FAA Reauthorization deliberations is the need for government accountability for achieving progress. FAA must establish a set of progress metrics so that the administration, the Congress, industry stakeholders and the public can measure and track the operational improvement that is actually being achieved by the program. These metrics need to track performance outcomes, not just activity. Both industry and the regulators must be capable of determining whether efforts are actually improving safety, capacity and efficiency.
A big part of NextGen are the thousands of new satellite-based procedures that allow more efficient takeoffs and landings. All these airspace procedures must be designed and implemented, and most will require an environmental assessment. The National Environmental Policy Act process can be extremely protracted and time-consuming. Given the volume of expected airspace redesigns and the immediate economic and environmental benefits their implementation will provide, AIA recommends including NextGen-related airspace redesigns in the Airport Streamlining Approval Process as defined in Section304 of Vision 100 and an FAA-EPA interagency review to produce a more streamlined process.
With a streamlined NEPA process, new flight tracks and procedures will be implemented expeditiously. FAA estimates these satellite-guided procedures will be quieter, reduce delays and save fuel. By 2018, these procedures will save aircraft 1.4 billion gallons of fuel, which means they will emit 14 million fewer tons of CO2. To implement these procedures even quicker, AIA recommends the FAA certify third- party procedure development. Far more procedures could be put in place in less time and each would be checked and approved by FAA inspectors.
The civil aviation industry is an economic engine that contributes positively to the U.S. trade balance, creates high paying jobs, keeps just-in-time business models viable and connects all Americans to friends, family and business opportunities. All of that economic activity is funneled through the nation’s air traffic system. Full NextGen deployment requires the production and installation of hundreds of thousands of high-tech avionics products assembled by skilled workers in U.S. factories and maintenance stations in every state.
Lack of an authorization bill has kept NextGen and other critical programs on life support. It’s time to give FAA the tools to keep our nation the leader in civil aviation.
Marion C. Blakey is the President and CEO of Aerospace Industries Association.