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Aviation officials debate how to fund traffic system

The FAA, airlines and private pilots agree that air traffic controllers need to switch to a satellite network. But they don't agree on how to pay for it.

Published February 4, 2007


WASHINGTON - Federal aviation officials expect on Monday to begin introducing a proposal to finance a new air traffic control system that they say will be needed to keep pace with increasing air travel over the next two decades.

Without a new system, officials say, passengers would face delays that would dwarf last year's snarls.

"In the long term, we could see real gridlock," said Federal Aviation Administrator Marion Blakey.

Few people in the aviation industry dispute Blakey's assessment of future air traffic congestion, a problem that officials hope to fix by switching from a radar network to one that relies on satellites.

However, a debate is unfolding over how to finance the next-generation network, which could cost $69-billion to $76-billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Federal Aviation Administration and other government agencies want the system completed by 2025. They have not said how much it would cost.

The FAA would use its trust fund, which accumulates aviation-related taxes, to pay for the new system. But the fund's balance has dropped to $1.8-billion, the lowest in a decade, officials said.

The officials say they must change how they collect money for the fund. Its largest source of funding - taxes paid on airline tickets - is not keeping pace with costs, they say.

The officials cite several reasons for the shortfall, but attribute it mostly to the growth of low-cost carriers. Those airlines charge less for flights, reducing tax revenue. Officials also note that airlines are using more small jets, adding to the workload of controllers.

Officials expect increased use of corporate aircraft and small private planes, known as very light jets, that are just hitting the market. Users of private aircraft pay fuel taxes.

Blakey has hinted that the agency is considering a plan more in line with what airlines have advocated for years: replacing the ticket tax with user fees. Airlines want the FAA to charge fees for most planes, including private jets, that use controlled airspace.

It is not clear how broad the FAA proposal would be or how much it would rely on user fees, taxes or a combination of the two.

Owners of jets and small planes are lobbying against a change in the funding structure, saying it would unfairly hurt their businesses and aviation in general. They say the FAA has exaggerated its budget problems and has not explained how much the new system would cost. If the funding structure remains unchanged, they say, the trust fund would still accumulate billions of dollars to finance a new air traffic system. They refer to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office that say the fund would have nearly $19-billion by 2016.

"I just don't understand why we need to change a system that works," said Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Parts of the FAA proposal would be included in the agency's budget, which is to be submitted to Congress on Monday. More details are to emerge after the agency's reauthorization proposal is made public in the next few weeks.

The planned air traffic system would be vastly different than today's network, which dates to the 1960s and relies on radar and air traffic controllers to direct pilots. Controllers must maintain substantial distances between planes and often move aircraft along slower, indirect routes because of the imprecision of radar data.

The new system, parts of which are being tested, would rely on satellites and Global Positioning System devices, which can locate an aircraft within a few feet.

Pilots also would be able to monitor the location of other planes on screens in their cockpits, giving them a far better idea of what is going on around them.

The system would require new equipment for planes, which could cost thousands of dollars per aircraft. The government would have to ensure that other countries adopt similar systems so planes would not need additional computers or software. The new technology must be proven to be as reliable as radar.

[Last modified February 4, 2007, 01:30:34]

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