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Posts Tagged ‘air traffic control’

The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing today to review several nominations in its purview, including FAA administrator-designate J. Randolph Babbitt and DOT deputy secretary-designate John Porcari. Opening statements are going on now. Babbitt is, as you know, the former president of the Air Line Pilots Association and a pilot at Eastern. According to Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is chairing the hearing at the moment, Babbitt is “the right person to lead the FAA at the moment.” (Wow, tough crowd.) Porcari is Maryland’s secretary of transportation.

Opening statements by Babbitt and Porcari have been posted on the committee’s website.

I’m not on the Hill today, but I am watching the hearing’s live webcast. I’ll bring you aviation-related highlights of the hearing throughout the day, so refresh this post for the latest updates. Stay tuned!

Babbitt

Babbitt

11:43. Interesting item from Babbitt’s testimony: “I have worked with members of Congress on major aviation safety issues, including one of which I am most proud, ‘One Level of Safety.’ I led this project in 1993 while I was president of ALPA. This program resulted in required regional carriers to operate under the same rules and at the same level of safety as their major carrier counterparts.” Of significant relevance given the attention paid to small-lift provider safety standards in the wake of the NTSB’s Colgan Air crash hearings.

11:48. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was principally responsible for torpedoing the confirmation of Robert Sturgell, former president Bush’s FAA nominee. He’s much happier with Babbitt today, about whom, when he slips up and says “if you are confirmed, he adds “if you’re not it will be a miracle.” Lautenberg asks about the New York / New Jersey / Philadelphia airspace redesign. Would Babbitt put a hold on the redesign until frontline air traffic controllers ha had a chance to weigh in? “I’m not exactly certain where that process stands at this time,” Babbitt replies. “On a personal basis, I would really like to solicit input from all the stakeholders in that area. . . . I think it’s very important that [controllers] have input in this process.”

Lautenberg then raises a parochial concern that is more than parochial, given the airport’s role in the system: reported controller shortages at Newark Liberty International Airport. “Can you assure us that the Newark tower will be staffed to the volume of performance we require there?” Babbitt: “It’s my hope that every tower in this country will be staffed and manned to the highest degree.” He refers to the “bubble of controllers being in a similar age, a band of age” who are going to retire soon. (And already are.–ed.)

(more…)

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TEMPE — Echoing Doug Parker’s plea for the government to “do no harm” to the airline industry, C. A. Howlett, US Airways’ top government affairs officer, outlined the challenges the industry — and US Airways in particular — face in the policy environment. His primary focus was the pending FAA reauthorization bill. Put off since 2007, the bill has been passed by the House but no action has been taken in the Senate. “We will maybe get this in calendar year 2009 but no one is betting anything heavy on that particular forecast,” he quipped.

Howlett is in no rush to get the House bill passed, because it has several provisions that give US Airways and other airlines pause. The bill increases the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) from $4.50 to $7.00. PFCs are used to fund airport improvements but are levied by airlines when passengers buy tickets. This, Howlett said, would add $2 billion to the airline industry’s costs. “Airports have the ability to raise revenues by raising our landing fees and charges,” he added. “Not all airports are the same. . . . [Raising landing fees is]a better way to finance projects.” Besides, he said, airports got $1.1 billion in the stimulus bill, plus $1 billion for security improvements.

Also of concern in the House’s FAA bill are labor issues regarding collective bargaining procedures, the passenger’s bill of rights provisions, and limitations on foreign repair stations. Howlett said that there is a provision inserted at the behest of the firefighters’ union that would cost US Airways alone $15 million per year at their hubs. (more…)

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If you’re a regular reader of the Aviation Policy Blog (and I hope you are; the best way to keep up to date is to subscribe to my feed), you’re well aware of how aviation is playing out in the 2008 election (or the extent to which it isn’t). In today’s Wall Street Journal, “Middle Seat” columnist Scott McCartney takes on what the next president will need to do. I commend this read to you. First, the stakes of inaction on aviation issues:

Last year, nearly one-quarter of all U.S. airline flights were delayed, and the average delay was 55 minutes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Passengers lost 112 million hours of time spent waiting. . . . And that doesn’t count the delay already baked into airline schedules. On average, U.S. airline flights were scheduled 15 minutes longer in 2006 than in 1997, based on the same distances. . . . Delays cost airlines $8.1 billion in direct operating costs in 2007, mostly burning extra fuel and paying crews for the extra time. That’s more than the U.S. industry has ever earned in a year. . . . More than 1,600 flights last year sat for longer than three hours waiting to take off, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. More than 4.4 million bags were mishandled. Complaints about airline service were up 65% last year.

McCartney outlines several steps that the next president can take. He also underscores the urgency of making these changes now: “The time to fix it is now, when the economic downturn has given the system some slack. This is when it’s easiest to replace, repair and expand.” We didn’t do this during our last downturn, after 9/11, and it hurt badly in 2006-2007. So, what does he recommend?

  • Air traffic control modernization. “The current time-table for modernizing air-traffic control covers 20 years, and the history of the effort is filled with delays. What’s needed is a full-court press. He then quotes Marion Blakey on how viable ATC transformation is, but her five years at the helm of the FAA and in charge of NextGen are conveniently glossed over.
  • Split the FAA into two agencies. “Many industry watchers would like to see the FAA split into two parts: a safety regulator for airlines, airports and air-traffic controllers, and a separate air-traffic-control system run in a business-like manner by a not-for-profit entity, not government.” That includes this industry-watcher. “One major reason to split the FAA is that the agency today is both the safety regulator and the operator,” McCartney continues. “In air-traffic control, the FAA regulates itself, leading to potential conflicts of interest.” He cites Dorothy Robyn’s excellent paper this summer for the Brookings Institution’s excellent Hamilton Project. He also quotes former Continental chairman Gordon Bethune, who carries the flag for ATC privatization/commercialization: “Bethune . . . hopes the new president will push for ‘a quasi-government agency to build and operate a modern air-traffic-control system.’ Bond financing could be used for new equipment instead of asking Congress to pay for it year by year.”
  • Other issues. McCartney urges measures to make TSA screening less invasive and troublesome; passenger-bill-of-rights-type measures, a “better plan” to ease congestion at New York-area airports, “a Transportation Secretary with muscle to fix the problem, not prolong it,” and incentives for greener, cleaner aerospace R&D.

To McCartney’s memo, I would add the following items:

  • A new FAA administrator, hired from outside the agency, with respect from industry and labor. Labor-management relations at the agency are beyond toxic, and promoting current management (as Bush did when he nominated Robert Sturgell) is only going to inflame the situation. To the extent that Barack Obama has engaged in aviation issues, he has been entirely aligned with the air traffic controllers; he needs to demonstrate his independence by picking someone who will command the controllers’ respect and negotiate with them while still defending the prerogatives of the FAA’s “customers”–system users–and taxpayers.
  • A commitment to an alternative funding structure for the FAA. Ticket and fuel taxes are not enough. The FAA needs a user fee system. This will align use of the system with the cost of providing ATC services. The current administration has admirably pushed for user fees; perhaps, in an environment less rabidly partisan than that existing between Congress and the White House, we can see rapprochement on this crucial priority.

Commentators rightly say that thirty years out, we’re not going backward on airline deregulation. But will the next president take crucial steps in pursuing “Deregulation 2.0,” the critical public-sector overhaul that will make our aviation system more competitive, productive, and efficient for decades into the future? If the next president takes on established interests and pursues these reforms, future generations of fliers will thank him.

A Flier’s Plea to the New President [WSJ]

See also the LA Times and FlightBlogger guides to the politics of air travel.

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My story in The American magazine is now up on its website. Here’s the lede: “Thirty years ago this October, the era of affordable mass air travel was unleashed. Why was this revolution stalled, and what can be done to finish it?”

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Top policy advisers to Barack Obama and John McCain differed on key transportation issues at a forum in Washington this morning, but they agreed, in the words of McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, when it comes to transportation, “the ratio of importance to discussion on the campaign trail is high.”

Mortimer Downey

Downey

Mortimer Downey, Obama’s senior transportation adviser and Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of transportation, emphasized Obama’s detailed transportation plan, which I blogged about here. “I can’t recall a candidate who’s put together such a full-fledged transportation plan,” he said. Among the infrastructure problems the next president will tackle will be to “have an air traffic control system that works.”

Downey identified three “vehicles” through which Obama would improve transportation: First, a short-term boost in spending to create jobs and provide economic stimulus. Second, a ten-year, $60 billion “National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank.” Third, a federal highway spending bill (due next year) with fewer earmarks and a systemic approach.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin

Holtz-Eakin

Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, spoke of McCain’s agenda (or lack thereof) in two categories: process and the federal role. On process, he noted McCain’s opposition to all earmarks and his support for economic review, return-on-investment analysis of transportation projects, and “performance and accountability measures.” Holtz-Eakin emphasized the need to identify properly the federal role in transportation planning and spending in relation to local and state agencies and “the important role of the private sector.”

As for Obama’s National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, Holtz-Eakin said “it isn’t something [McCain] supports . . . very reminiscent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” (more…)

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The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association have released the candidates’ answers (or, more accurately, the campaigns’ answers) to their election questionnaire. One of the interesting points about this questionnaire is that even though John McCain has not articulated an aviation agenda, he/his campaign can draw on his Commerce Committee experience to answer these questions pointedly and with examples. Barack Obama’s answers are vague, inconclusive, and sometimes evasive.

For example:

General aviation airports are an important part of the national air transportation system but are often faced with the threat of closure or limits on access. How will you support general aviation airports as part of the national airport system?

McCain:
If I am elected, one of my top transportation priorities will be to modernize the air traffic control system so it can handle the increased traffic that is forecast. The current system cannot efficiently handle these increases. Gridlock in the sky and on the ground at our airports won’t just result in longer delays for airline passengers, but it will also affect general aviation—especially in the busier airspace around our major metropolitan areas. Under such a scenario, it could become very difficult for pilots to use general aviation airports in that airspace, particularly at peak times. In my view, making better use of the air space won’t benefit just commercial aviation, but general aviation as well.

Obama:
General aviation produces over a million jobs in America and is an invaluable part of our economy and the lifestyle of American families across the nation. As president, I will engage the general aviation community in the FAA decision making process and take steps, as I did as a state senator, to ensure that government continues to determine how best to meet the needs of general aviation practitioners.

On the controversial subject of user fees, McCain points out that the acrimonious debate is harming all parties. Obama says, well, not much of anything: (more…)

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DALLAS — I had the chance to talk today with Bob Montgomery, Southwest’s vice president for properties, about the challenge of congested aviation infrastructure. He said that the problem is not truly a national problem; instead, there are “four or five cities” with the kind of congested airspace, runways, and ramp space that causes snarls. Unfortunately, he added, these airports are the kind where you can’t just build a new runway: LaGuardia, San Francisco, JFK, Washington National.

But he said there’s a lot we can do to fill in the gap, especially in modernizing our air traffic control system by pursuing required navigational performance procedures and completing the NextGen basket of updates. Another problem, Montgomery said, is the “gauge” of aircraft using these congested airports. We can upgrade flights to mainline narrowbodies instead of using so many regional jets. Pricing mechanisms can promote these kind of changes.

Will Southwest be moving into markets like LaGuardia or National anytime soon? Montgomery chuckled and wouldn’t say yes or no. “It’s a matter of slots and economics,” he added.

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