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Boo to Hot Air, which posted this headline: “Good news: Feds pulling workers away from FAA to staff exploding Cash for Clunkers bureaucracy” (I found it via Volokh.) The Hot Air post plays up the possibility that thin-on-the-ground air traffic controllers are being taken from towers to process paperwork. The article cited, from the Washington Times, however, makes it clear that this is not the case:

But Ms. Zuckman said that only support personnel, such as in finance and operations, were asked to work on the clunkers program.

“Nobody is being ordered to do anything; we weren’t asking air traffic controllers to leave their posts. We’re using budget and accounting people primarily,” she said.

“It was made clear that no core mission activities of the FAA are to be affected by this effort, especially as they could relate to air traffic operations.”

A union spokeswoman confirmed the account Friday.

“Air traffic controllers are not being asked to do this,” said Alex Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Basically, the actual story doesn’t live up to Hot Air’s scare headline. You don’t have to think that Cash for Clunkers was a good idea (I don’t) to think it’s a bad idea for federal support personnel to spend a few days helping to clear a backlog that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

Unless something develops in this story, there’s nothing to see here.

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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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Here’s the White House press release announcing the nomination of Randy Babbitt as the next administrator of the FAA.

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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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TEMPE — Just heard from one of the other bloggers here that former Air Line Pilots Association head Randy Babbitt has been picked to lead the Federal Aviation Administration. Here’s the news as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

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One of the surprises about the rumored Ray LaHood nomination for secretary of transportation — set to be announced tomorrow — is that he has so little transportation experience. He is on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and would thus be well positioned to oversee Barack Obama’s planned burst of infrastructure spending. LaHood did serve on the Aviation Subcommittee back in the late 1990s, and during that time, he cosponsored — which, in Congress, usually means you slapped your name on the bill for some political reason — several aviation-related pieces of legislation:

  • Federal Aviation Administration Revitalization Act of 1995 (HR 2276, 104th Cong.). This legislation would have made the FAA an independent agency no longer under the authority of the DOT, although DOT approval would have been required for FAA rulemaking. Also gutted the aviation staffers at DOT who report to the secretary. This legislation passed the house in 1996 before stalling in a Senate committee.
  • Airline Passenger Safety Act of 1996 (HR 3618, 104th Cong.). Prohibits chemical oxygen generators from being transported by aircraft. Went nowhere in the House.
  • Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 (HR 3923, 104th Cong.). Requires the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airplane crashes, to appoint a liaison for families of plane-crash victims and name a national nonprofit to handle post-crash care for victims’ families. Also requires airlines to submit plans for their dealings with victims’ families and urges state bar associations to forbid their ambulance-chasing members from contacting victims’ families for thirty days. Passed by House; not taken up in the Senate.
  • HR 2252, 105th Cong., directs the transportation secretary to retaliate against foreign countries that violate air service agreements with the U.S. with respect to cargo carriers. Hearings were held.
  • Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (HR 1000, 106th Cong.). The FAA reauthorization bill.
  • HR 4529, 106th Cong., which amends federal aviation law to prevent people with criminal convictions that “indicate a propensity for placing contraband aboard an aircraft in return for money” from holding aviation-security jobs. No action.
  • Small Airport Safety, Security, and Air Service Improvement Act of 2002 (HR 1979, 107th Cong.). This bill, which never made it past the Senate, would have provided funding for construction of control towers and installation of equipment.

Interestingly, LaHood voted “no” on the 2007 FAA Reauthorization Act — the as yet incomplete FAA legislation. The House’s version, spearheaded by Rep. James Oberstart (D-Minn.) did not include a provision for user fees for air traffic control services, unlike the Senate version that saw the two houses at loggerheads. Why did LaHood join most Republicans in voting no? I’ll try to find out.

LaHood is an Arab-American (of Lebanese and Jordanian descent). In 1998, he vociferously opposed the use of profiling in rooting out potential terrorists or hijackers. He insisted that screening systems be entirely non-discriminatory.

Adrian Schofield offers a couple of notes over at Things with Wings. One may be related to one of the bills above and involves a vigorous response on international air services agreements. The other places him in opposition to FAA commercialization or restructuring in 1995.

Now, the secretary of transportation works on more than aviation. But the FAA is the largest subagency within DOT, and LaHood’s aviation record is pretty thin on the ground.

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Shikha Dalmia, a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, an L.A.-based think thank that sets itself apart in the right-of-center policy community by focusing on transportation, offers a libertarian perspective on the best and worst cabinet appointees that Barack Obama might choose at the Department of Transportation.

Mary Peters

Mary Peters

Dalmia writes that one of the top priorities of the next transportation secretary should be to speed up the NextGen transformation by “extricating air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration’s bureaucratic shackles and spinning them off as a separate ‘company’ with the authority to fund the $25 billion revamp through revenue bonds paid by user fees.”

The candidate who is best suited for this job is, in fact, the current Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters. She began her term in 2006 and since then she has repeatedly drawn attention to the imminent bankruptcy of the National Highway Trust Fund and the need, therefore, to explore leasing arrangements with private companies to build new toll roads and to implement congestion pricing — an idea that Obama has praised — in our most-congested urban areas as well as airports. . . . Peters has proven herself to be an able administrator. More to the point, she would offer creative and sensible ways for Obama to deliver on his idea of using infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy without burdening taxpayers.

Dalmia’s “second-tier picks” include Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, Clinton-era deputy transportation secretary Mort Downey, and San Francisco Bay Area transportation commission director Steve Heminger. Unlike Peters, the latter two are thought to be on Obama’s shortlist. Dalmia also mentions some positives about former FAA administrator Jane Garvey, who has apparently made favorable noises on highway pricing. But Dalmia writes that “she starved the air traffic system of funding, partly because she didn’t have the gumption to standup to the demands for a sweetheart contract by the controllers’ union.”

And Dalmia’s worst options: Representatives Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). “They routinely advocate spending gas tax revenues on everything but highways and are huge champions of mass transit, regardless of a project’s effectiveness. Oberstar, a bike enthusiast, is arguably the worse of the two because he also has a taste for larding highway pork on favored constituencies. . . . Oberstar would be a great friend of the decrepit transportation status-quo, something that America’s economy can ill afford.”

Obama’s Cabinet: Hoping for an Empirical Presidency [Reason Foundation]

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Duane Woerth

Duane Woerth

There’s a lot of virtual ink being spilled in the blogosphere about Obama’s shortlist for FAA administrator. Some of those rumored to be under consideration include Representative Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee; Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.); Clinton-era FAA chief Jane Garvey;  Robert Herbert, an aide to Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Boeing executive Neil Planzer, and former Air Line Pilots Association president Duane Woerth. Regarding the latter, the Wall Street Journal‘s Middle Seat Terminal blog has this to say:

Woerth . . . has met with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar and has his tentative support, according to people familiar with their discussions. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who heads an aviation subcommittee, is slated to meet with Woerth in the next few days. . . .

Still, the Journal reports that Woerth has the strong backing of various unions seeking to cash in political capital for their aggressive support of Obama’s candidacy. But Woerth, who frequently prodded the agency to step up air-safety efforts, also has garnered bipartisan endorsements on Capitol Hill and enjoys the backing of some aircraft makers and airline-industry officials.

I called a airline pilot friend and ALPA member at one of the nation’s largest airlines to get his impressions. This pilot  thought Woerth did an “OK” job as head of ALPA. My source especially praised Woerth’s handling of the critical time surrounding the September 11 attacks: “He was head of ALPA during 9/11. He had a huge amount dumped on his plate with the tremendous challenges to the industry” — including persuading pilot groups to make wage and benefit concessions in attempts to save their airlines. (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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