As someone who flies almost weekly, I get as upset as anyone over lost bags, canceled flights and long delays. As a pilot, I am concerned about air safety and the air traffic control system. As a congressman, I am concerned about repeated claims by editorial writers and air safety critics that Congress is not spending air safety money from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund and is hoarding a surplus to make the deficit look smaller.
That simply is not true. And a distinction needs to be made between service and safety.
First and foremost, lost bags, crowded facilities and maintenance-related delays or other service-related problems are the responsibility of the airlines themselves and, to a lesser degree, airport management. Weather delays no one can do anything about, although in the new "hub and spoke" configuration, weather delays can "ripple" across the system with greater overall impact than before. But careful planning by the airlines should also minimize the "ripple." All of these service-related solutions come from the airlines and the airports' own funds, not from the federal trust fund. In the long run, we need more airports or those service woes will only get worse. But the answer here is not money. The 70 leading airports in this country are financially self-supporting. The main problem is where to expand in the face of community fears about noise and environmental harm.
That leaves safety and delays caused by air traffic congestion. Air space allocation and control is a major challenge in this new deregulated environment. That's the job of the Federal Aviation Administration, and it hasn't kept up, plain and simple. Today there are 1,000 fewer air traffic controllers than in 1981, before the full impact of growth in air traffic caused by deregulation.
Are these problems because of inadequate planning for the future?
No. Since 1981 there has been a 10-year, $16 billion National Air Space Plan with new tech-nology for modernizing equipment used by both controllers and pilots that will provide state-of-the-art computers, radars and the like.
Are there implementation problems?
Yes, and that's where the FAA has fallen down on the job and that's why there is a surplus in the Airport Trust Fund. We simply can't spend the money because technical and mismanagement problems are holding up the modernization program of this nation's air traffic control system. The House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, on which I serve, has appropriated more than $1.2 billion for the FAA over the past several years that has yet to be spent either because equipment isn't ready or because of mismanagement.
In program after program, the General Accounting Office stated the reasons for delay were technical problems, contract delays and slippage problems, not lack of funding. In fact, this year, the House has voted a bill to increase aviation funding by 63 percent for airport construction, 35 percent for improving facilities, 27 percent for operations to hire more controllers and 9 percent for increased research and engineering activities.
Some have suggested the answer is to take the Aviation Trust Fund out of the budget-making process. Definitely not. This approach would be devastating to air safety. It would cause even deeper cuts in the the non-trust fund portion of the FAA budget, which primarily finances air traffic controller positions.
This administration needs to either get moving with the implementation of the NAS plan or level with the flying public as to where the shortcomings are rather than always falling into the "blame everything on Congress" mold. We now have a new secretary of transportation and a new FAA administrator. Let's hope they take the initiative. The transportation subcommittees of the House and Senate will surely do their part.
-- Bob Carr The writer is a Democratic representative from Michigan.