In the aftermath of the terrible airline tragedy in Detroit, and with media attention focused on near-collisions, equipment problems and airline cancellations and delays, some have tried to pin the blame on Congress for not providing the funding to remedy these problems. We wish money were the solution, but in this case appearances are deceiving. A closer look reveals the aviation "funding crisis" to be a phony issue.
The much-publicized argument is simple, and therefore attractive. It goes something like this:
(1) The nation's air traffic system needs new Doppler wind-shear radar, modern air traffic control computers, more airports and runways, more controllers, and all the newest and best of high technology; (2) the FAA has been slow to make these improvements and has been indecisive about its personnel requirements; (3) there is a $5.7 billion surplus in the user-fee-generated aviation trust fund used to finance some of these improvements; (4) this surplus must mean that Congress, at the expense of public safety and convenience, is deliberately underfunding federal aviation programs to make the federal deficit look smaller; and (5) therefore, if Congress spends all the trust-fund money, most of our problems would be solved.
But this argument ignores what is actually happening on Capitol Hill.
Federal aviation programs receive higher spending priority than most other domestic programs. Over the past three fiscal years, in a period when most domestic programs have been frozen or cut, Congress has increased FAA funding nearly 30 percent and provided funds to increase the number of air traffic controllers by more than 1,000 and expand the number of aviation inspectors by more than 400.
The aviation trust fund is only one piece of a larger aviation financial puzzle. Only a portion of FAA programs is funded from the trust fund. By law, the rest of the FAA budget has to come out of the general U.S. Treasury. Of the $6.23 billion provided to the FAA in the fiscal year 1988 House appropriations bill, only $3.77 billion is from the aviation trust fund. In fact, the general taxpayers, not the airlines or their customers, are paying for the bulk of the highest safety needs of the system -- the salaries and expenses of air traffic controllers, airline inspectors, equipment maintenance personnel and the like.
If the whole FAA budget were paid for by user taxes, the aviation trust fund would soon go broke. There would have to be a user tax increase just to raise sufficient revenue to maintain current spending levels.
Technical problems, not funding, are holding up Doppler wind-shear radar and the air traffic control computer modernization program now under way. The General Accounting Office has testified repeatedly on this point. Doppler wind-shear radar is still under development and is simply not ready for installation. We wish it were, because Congress already has appropriated funds to install this equipment at 17 locations around the nation.
All 11 major FAA equipment modernization projects, ranging from new air traffic control computers to microwave landing systems, are behind schedule. But these delays are caused by unexpected problems in developing complex new computer software and in fully testing these new systems before we buy them. Not one project is underfunded. In fact, the cash balance in the trust fund includes appropriated funds totaling over $1 billion that are "sitting in the bank" waiting for the various contractors to deliver the needed equipment.
We in Congress have been providing sufficient funds to do the job as promptly and efficiently as technology allows, rather than just throwing money at a problem and hoping for the best. The latter approach is guaranteed to produce the FAA equivalent of $600 toilet seats.
Our growing airport capacity problems will not be solved simply by making more federal money available for airport construction. The federal airport grant program has increased steadily over the past five years -- from $700 million to $1.7 billion per year. In addition, roughly 70 percent of the largest commercial airports in this country are financially self-supporting and can readily raise their own construction funds. The real problem is deciding where to build new runways and airports to keep pace with increased demand for air travel in the face of community opposition to possible environmental harm, congestion and noise.
The baggage, delay and other airline service problems brought on by deregulation and airline merger mania cannot be solved by more FAA spending. Deregulation and FAA spending are separate and distinct issues. Getting the airlines to provide better service is not a federal budget problem. Emptying the trust fund is no panacea.
William Lehman (D-Fla.) and Lawrence Coughlin (R-Pa.) are members of the House Appropriations Committee.