Senators seek more funds for federal aviation programs

Lawmaker questions whether FAA will be able to hire enough air traffic controllers to replace those who are expected to retire soon.

Senators Tuesday lambasted the Bush administration for requesting cuts in Federal Aviation Administration airport improvement and rural air service funding for next year, while administration officials are finishing a plan to send to Congress this spring to improve the financial footing of the federal aviation sector.

Senate Commerce Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Conrad Burns, R-Mont., called the administration's $13.7 billion fiscal 2007 request for FAA "very shortsighted" when the number of air passengers is at record levels. "FAA will not have the funds necessary to plan for the next generation" of airline passengers, Burns said.

The administration's FAA request is $561 million less than this year and more than $1 billion less than what Congress authorized for next year. The biggest cut would go to the Airport Improve Program, which directs grants to capital improvements and safety projects.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, also complained about proposed cuts or zero funding for rural air programs in Alaska and other states, many of which customarily do not receive funding requests by the administration because they are earmarked by Congress. But Stevens said heightened congressional attention on reducing earmarks would make it "near impossible" this year.

"We're going to have to get a budget amendment so these are not earmarks," Stevens said. "It's a distressing situation to me."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., questioned whether the FAA would hire enough air traffic controllers to replace those who are expected to retire soon and whether FAA would propose a general aviation user fee to increase revenue.

In what has become a customary response from agency heads this year, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told the subcommittee, "It's a very, very tight budget environment."

The Bush administration is completing a financing plan for FAA that will be included in a larger reauthorization package that will be sent to Congress this spring. Blakey declined to offer details.

The goal is to find a "funding mechanism that is reliable and consistent," she said, because "our revenue simply can't keep up" with aviation needs. This lack of funding certainty places "substantial uncertainty into our planning process," Blakey said.

The Government Accountability Office also is working on an analysis of potential funding options and cost savings that will be presented to Congress in the coming months. Revenue going to federal aviation programs has gone down 77 percent since 2001 partly because of a drop in passengers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and an abundance of low-fare carriers. A main source of this revenue is a 7.5 percent tax on commercial airline tickets.

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