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First of all, big props to Obama and his campaign team for actually having a transportation agenda [PDF]. The McCain campaign devotes a whole section to manned space exploration but can’t spare a word for aviation. So, to Obama, an A for effort.
Now let’s dig into the plan:
As our society becomes more mobile and interconnected, the need for 21st-century transportation networks has never been greater. However, too many of our nation’s railways, highways, bridges, airports, and neighborhood streets are slowly decaying due to lack of investment and strategic long-term planning. Barack Obama believes that America’s long-term competitiveness depends on the stability of our critical infrastructure. As president, Obama will make strengthening our transportation systems, including our roads and bridges, a top priority.
Barack Obama believes that it is critically important for the United States to rebuild its national transportation infrastructure — its highways, bridges, roads, ports, air, and train systems — to strengthen user safety, bolster our long-term competitiveness and ensure our economy continues to grow. Investing in national infrastructure is especially important in our efforts to bolster our homeland security to meet international terrorism and natural disaster threats. . . . Barack Obama will address the infrastructure challenge by creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments. This independent entity will be directed to invest in our nation’s most challenging transportation infrastructure needs. The Bank will receive an infusion of federal money, $60 billion over 10 years, to provide financing to transportation infrastructure projects across the nation.
Worthy goals. One of the core functions of government is to provide for infrastructure development and maintenance. How will this money be allocated? By DOT, or by Congress? Political realities mandate, for example, that Airport Improvement Fund monies go disproportionately to airports that do not need them as much as the highly trafficked and congested commercial hubs. How it gets allocated is key.
Because of an outdated air-traffic control system and overscheduling at airports already operating at full capacity, there were a record number of flight delays during the first half of 2007. Moreover, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has failed to work well with our nation’s air traffic controllers, neglecting to treat them with the respect they deserve. There are nearly 1,100 fewer air traffic controllers working in U.S. air traffic facilities today than three years ago, despite increasing air traffic. Obama will work with Congress to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system and he will direct the new FAA Administrator to work cooperatively with the frontline air traffic controllers to restore morale and improve working conditions and operations at the agency.
This is the one area of aviation policy in which Obama has made a legislative effort during his term: promoting an end to the hostile labor situation at the FAA. I will have more on this soon.
How does Obama plan to fund further ATC modernization? As far as I can find, he’s not on record endorsing user fees, and the FAA reauthorization bill never came up for a final vote in the Senate.
Over the past several months there have been reports that FAA leadership ignored warnings from FAA employees that too many commercial planes failed to meet federal safety guidelines. As a result of FAA whistleblowers coming to the public with this information, there have been widespread groundings of commercial planes which have added considerable strain to our airline industry. Barack Obama believes that we must restore competence, independence and credibility to the FAA. As president, Obama will appoint a qualified FAA Administrator who will not play politics with the safety of American travelers and he will work with Congress to strengthen the FAA’s mandate.
Straight up. We need new leadership at the FAA, but more than that we need a culture of effective service to the traveling public, not of bureaucratic CYA. As I’ve written before, that sort of change will be difficult in an agency that has both a regulatory function and a customer service function.
Obama has worked across party lines to protect funding for the Essential Air Service program, which provides vital funds for air transportation in rural areas. Obama supports the continuation of the Small Community Air Service Development Program that helps small and mid-sized communities attract new air service, which is critical to local economic development. Obama will work to improve the effectiveness of these programs and increase the availability of rail transportation options for residents of rural communities.
Between October 2005 and January 2006, Government Accountability Office investigators were able to smuggle bomb components past federal screeners at all 21 airports they targeted. And airline passengers are still not screened against a comprehensive, accurate terrorist watch list. As a result, almost six years after 9/11, we still have a security system that results in eight-year olds and grandmothers being repeatedly questioned and even stopped from flying. Developing a comprehensive, accurate list must be a priority and used in a way that safeguards passengers’ privacy while ensuring the safety of air travel. As a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Barack Obama believes we must redouble our efforts to determine if the measures implemented after 9/11 are adequately addressing the threats our nation continues to face from airplane-based terrorism. Obama has supported increased numbers of federal airport screeners and improved funding for aviation security.
Does Obama really believe that we should use risk-based assessments of travelers in security? He seems to say so here, arguing that kids and grandmothers are less of a threat. And he’s absolutely right: they are much less of a threat. But he has fought efforts to introduce positive risk-based assessments (i.e., profiling), as happened last fall when the TSA’s policy of undertaking secondary screening of people wearing turbans fell under congressional scrutiny. Again, there’s a lack of specifics here. Would the increased ranks of screeners do the same sort of screening, or would they switch techniques, given the GAO’s ease in sneaking bomb components through. He says nothing to indicate that he would relax airport security restrictions.
So, that’s the Obama plan on aviation. I have a query for clarification and expansion on some points into the campaign, and hopefully I’ll hear more soon.
As for McCain’s aviation platform, I haven’t heard back from his campaign, but I’m going through his much lengthier congressional record and finding all sorts of interesting tidbits. Some of them are cropping up in the social networking section of the Obama website, which — props to the Obama campaign — has lots of aviation-related affinity groups, including Pilots for Obama and General Aviation for Obama.