Thune And Shuster: The FAA’s Unfriendly Skies

Washington Times

Leaders are supposed to solve problems. When confronted with challenges, they step forward with solutions. Yet as the deadline for sequestration looms, we are sadly faced with an administration that seems more focused on holding campaign rallies than finding smarter ways to identify cost savings and to continue growing our economy.

As Republican leaders of the House and Senate committees that oversee our nation’s aviation network, we are particularly concerned with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood presenting a “sky is falling” picture of how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would implement cost reductions under sequestration. Rather than tightening the belt on agency budgets to find savings — like millions of American families have done over the last few years — the secretary has chosen to lay out a plan that appears designed to inflict the most pain possible on the flying public. Before creating a false alarm regarding sequestration’s impact on aviation, the agency needs to sharpen its pencils and consider all its options.

The administration’s recent rhetoric is particularly disappointing in light of the FAA’s history of weak financial management. The agency’s lack of oversight and poor contract management has resulted in significant delays and cost overruns on major air-traffic control modernization programs. Three key modernization programs had combined cost overruns of more than $4 billion. Amazingly, out of 30 modernization programs, at least 15 have experienced cost overruns, delays or both owing to mismanagement.

While these contracts were running out of control, in the last seven years the FAA has sent more than 18,000 of its employees to conferences across the country, including destinations such as Las Vegas. In fiscal 2010 alone, the agency spent more than $8 million on conferences for its employees. Three of those conferences, all held in the same city during the same three-week span, cost more than $4.5 million.

With better management, the doomsday scenario presented by Mr. LaHood should be avoided. The FAA is well positioned to absorb spending reductions. The United States continues to see a smaller airline industry, while the agency has received significant funding increases in recent years. Domestic flights are down 27 percent from 2000 traffic levels. Meanwhile, between 2002 and 2012, the agency’s operations account funding has increased by 41 percent, or almost $3 billion.

The FAA claims it would have to implement furloughs of the vast majority of its 47,000 employees to meet sequestration’s mandatory costs savings. However, there are $2.7 billion in non-personnel costs that should be examined before staff furloughs. Examples include $500 million spent on consultants and $200 million in supplies and travel. The agency also has 46 aircraft that cost $143 million to operate. Additionally, officials have the authority and flexibility in their budget to use savings found in these areas to pay for air-traffic controllers and other critical personnel to avoid furloughs.

Every day, air-traffic controllers across the country keep the flying public safe, yet Mr. LaHood and the Obama administration appear unwilling to crunch the numbers to keep controllers on the job and prevent unnecessary flight delays. Administration officials have made it regrettably clear that, while President Obama himself proposed sequestration, they did not make responsible plans to implement it once it takes effect.

Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on Aviation will hold a hearing with FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta and will ask some of these important questions. It is not too late for the administration to show some leadership, tighten some belts and put the best interests of the flying public first.

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