Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Michael Huerta reminded lawmakers on Tuesday that they will face a deadline for extending federal aviation funding shortly after they deal with an expiring highway bill that has dominated talk in Washington in recent months.
Lawmakers have been searching for a way to pay for an extension of the highway funding measure, which is scheduled to expire on May 31, but Huerta said Tuesday that FAA is facing a similar deadline four months later. “It seems it was not that long ago that the FAA was celebrating the passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012,” he said during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
“In recent years, funding uncertainties resulting from sequestration, government shutdowns, and short-term reauthorization extensions have hurt the FAA’s ability to efficiently perform our mission, and have impeded our ability to commit to long-term investments,” Huerta continued. “This means that we need stable, long-term funding to effectively operate our air traffic control system, invest in NextGen and efficiently recapitalize our aging facilities. This would best be achieved with the passage of a long-term reauthorization bill that establishes stable long-term funding to provide the certainty necessary to plan and implement long term projects.”
The FAA’s last funding measure was a $63 billion bill that was approved in 2012 after more than 20 temporary extensions of a measure that was scheduled to have expired in 2009. The standoff over the FAA’s funding produced a two-week partial shutdown of the agency in 2011.
Lawmakers have said they consider extending the agency’s funding this year a priority, but the Transportation committees in Congress have spent most of the first quarter of 2015 bogged down in a debate about road and transit funding.
The federal government’s surface transportation funding is scheduled to expire in about six weeks, and consensus about how Congress should pay for an extension has been elusive.
The Department of Transportation has said that its Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in July if Congress does not reach a deal on an extension. Huerta said Tuesday that it is important for Congress to keep an eye on the aviation funding deadline as well.
“Air travel is an invaluable asset to the U.S economy and the FAA shares a responsibility for ensuring that asset is available to the flying public,” he said. “Because the flying public relies on services the FAA provides every day, because aviation is a tremendous asset to our economy, and because of our global leadership role, we must take steps to ensure the FAA is well-positioned to meet the challenges the aviation industry faces,” he continued. “A lot is at stake here, so getting things right is vital.” Lawmakers on the Republican-led Senate Transportation Committee said they wanted to prevent an interruption in the FAA’s funding, but they also said they want to enact reforms from the agency.
“Aviation has been and continues to be an essential component of our economy and society. From the crop dusters serving our agricultural heartland to modern jetliners that can connect almost any two points on the planet, the aviation community touches just about every aspect of modern life,” said the panel’s chairman, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
“Of course, we must not become complacent, as there is always room for improvement,” Thune continued. “Our nation’s air traffic control system has served us well for many years, but it is still based on equipment, concepts, and procedures that date back decades. In recent years, the FAA has tried to modernize the system by moving to satellite navigation and more automation. But these efforts have cost many billions of dollars with not as much progress as we all would like to see.”
Thune added that the FAA has to improve its timelines for approving new technologies like commercial drones, which have been the subject of intense scrutiny as the agency considersnew rules for increased use.
“If the U.S. is to remain at the forefront of aerospace manufacturing and innovation, the FAA must be able to review and approve new aircraft in a timely and effective manner,” he said. “Cutting edge technologies, from fly-by-wire airliners to unmanned aircraft systems, need to get to market quickly with FAA’s gold standard safety certification.”