Airports, FBOs and Users Role in Fostering Airport Health

March 29, 2018

Airports and their tenants provide essential services to keep general aviation healthy, sustainable and successful, as well as support the economic viability of local communities. In a recent Airport Business/AviationPros.com article, NATA Board Member Curt Castagna discussed pathways to maintain the sustainability of airports and to encourage stakeholders, including users, to collaborate on achieving a robust airport that supports both economic development and public access to aviation.

Is Your Airport Healthy?

BY CURT CASTAGNA, President and CEO of Aeroplex/Aerolease Group
Originally posted by Airport Business/AviationPros.com ON DEC 26, 2017

For managers of general aviation airports across the nation, the definition of sustainability is as diverse as the stakeholders whom they serve. However, most contend that maintaining both economic viability and social responsibility are vital to maintaining a healthy airport.

The Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP), which is funded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and undertakes research in a variety of aviation subject areas, defines airport sustainability as practices that ensure:

  • Protection of the environment, including conservation of natural resources
  • Social progress that recognizes the needs of all stakeholders
  • Maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment

There is no simple formula for achieving airport sustainability, as each facility has a unique operating environment, business structure, governance and market. In addition, airport management face diverse challenges in relation to meeting user needs in the areas of maintenance, modernization, budgeting, security, grant assurances, and local political and community initiatives.

This discussion is designed to encourage visionary thinking from airport, business and community leaders, as well as airport users, on how to collaboratively achieve a robust airport that supports both economic development and public access to aviation.

Navigating the Path to Self-Sufficiency

When it comes to maintaining the economic health of an airport, it is crucial to understand its unique operating environment. In broad terms, general aviation airports must comply with a host of federal regulations and requirements, while navigating local market forces and economic and environmental pressures.

General aviation airports traditionally generate revenue from lease rates, fees and charges collected from tenants and users who provide a broad range of aeronautical services to the aviation community including: aircraft sales and acquisitions, fuel, aircraft ground support, passenger and crew services, aircraft parking and storage, on-demand air charter, aircraft rental, flight training, aircraft maintenance and overhaul facilities, parts sales, and business aircraft and fractional ownership fleet management.

Development at general aviation airports often takes the shape of public-private partnerships, modeling the discussions currently underway at the nation’s commercial service airports. For example, an airport sponsor enters into a type of public-private partnership with a fixed based operator (FBO) that provides airport users with a wide range of aeronautical services. In return, the airport sponsor receives a fee for the land and the community receives the economic benefit, with minimal risk for the business enterprise that is created. An increased number of airports are also entering into agreements with private companies that provide renewable energy sources, such as solar panel installations, that can diversify revenue streams, significantly reduce energy costs and benefit the environment.

A third revenue stream at airports comes from specialty companies that serve aviation-related segments of the economy. Corporate and general aviation services are augmented by a diverse array of mixed-use facilities, including business parks and industrial centers, which make airports a powerful economic engine.

Finally, public-use airports benefit from grants provided by the FAA for vital infrastructure projects. Eligibility for these Airport Improvement (AIP) funds is specifically based on the airport’s ability to maintain a level and competitive playing field for leaseholders engaged in aeronautical activities. To maintain its grant assurances, airport sponsors are responsible for ensuring that its tenants provide services at prices that are fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory.

Competition, Not Regulation, Creates Healthy Airports

At some general aviation airports, as well as commercial airports with general aviation facilities, corporate aviation accounts for a disproportionate share of revenue generated compared to smaller general aviation aircraft. How then, do airports achieve economic sustainability while maintaining a healthy mix of jet, propeller and helicopter operations?

A proper mix of operations and aircraft cannot be achieved through increased federal regulation or market manipulation. Rather, airports must aggressively work to implement policies that maintain balance among the needs of diverse airport users, while extending the benefits of aviation to the local community.

This includes using a competitive selection process to attract tenants that make significant capital investment and offer quality services at reasonable prices. Airport sponsors must also establish fair and equitable lease rates and charges appropriate to the local market, as well as address mixed land use in their long-term master and business plans. When airport operators view their tenants as true business partners, they achieve mutual success and advance the airport’s mission to achieve both economic and social sustainability.

Case Study – The Airport Sponsor/Tenant Relationship

Currently, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is calling for the FAA to regulate the price of aeronautical services provided by FBOs, such as fuel and ramp fees, to achieve unfettered airport access. While this suggests that private pilots would receive the lowest costs available, it actually constrains the airport’s ability to serve the aviation community and achieve its goals.

The investments made by aviation and FBO facilities not only serve local pilots, but are gateways to economic investment in the community. As leases come up for renewal, an increased number of airports are requiring FBOs to make significant capital investments which revert back to the sponsor at the end of the ground lease. Each airport and each market is different. Thus, based on local and regional knowledge, FBOs construct pricing that enables them to provide quality service at a reasonable rate of return.

The economics of airport business place great importance on master lease terms and available revenue streams to create viable airports. While FBOs frequently comply with guaranteed service levels and facilities dictated by airport minimum standards, their business model does not guarantee income. Sparing airports the risks of an open and volatile market, they provide a steady revenue stream in the form of rent. Ultimately, the rates and charges collected by the airport sponsor are reinvested to help create a healthier airport.

In circumstances where pilots feel they do not have access to the best prices for fuel and other FBO services, the situation is best mitigated locally through the airport sponsor, which is obligated by federal law to ensure access on fair and reasonable terms. This does not equate to the lowest prices, but does require FBOs to offer equal rates to similarly-situated pilots. If the situation is not resolved, a last resort is the formal FAA Part 13 or 16 complaint process.

Clearly, this does not remove responsibility for the fair and equal treatment of pilots and other airport users from the realm of the airport sponsor. Rather, airports are held accountable for supporting policies and programs that best serve the diverse needs of the entire aviation community.

At Van Nuys Airport, for instance, progress on a 30-acre development project dedicated to propeller aircraft is climbing full speed ahead. This site, still under construction, provides hangars, tie-downs and office facilities for up to 270 propeller aircraft and related businesses. It also features a self-serve fueling station for private pilots. By relocating approximately 85 portable hangars from other leaseholds, this facility enabled other development projects to move forward and generate substantial economic impact.

Practices to Achieve Economic Sustainability

Creating an environment where airport businesses can thrive provides benefits to airport sponsors, users and operators, while creating high-skilled, high-paying jobs in the community. A business-friendly environment also attracts public-private partnerships to the airport, including those that advance green technology and neighborhood compatibility.

The following are a few practices that can help propel an airport toward economic health and, in so doing, promote policies that are both responsive to business and responsible to the community:

  • Develop and enforce airport minimum standards that promote the highest levels of safety, security and service for all airport users.
  • Ensure the airport has a current business/redevelopment plan and schedule of rates and charges that reflect its overall vision and mission.
  • Consider a transparent RFP process to solicit business proposals for real estate that is designated for both aeronautical and FAA approved non-aeronautical uses.
  • Review and maintain compliance with all airport grant assurances and regulatory measures established by federal, state and local government agencies with jurisdiction over the airport and its users.
  • Think globally, but work locally with airport users and operators, public officials and prominent business, civic and community organizations to form an airport business support team.

Finally, aviation industry leaders and policymakers should take advantage of organizations throughout the world, such as ACRP, that contribute guidance and research on subjects of importance to airports. Many of their findings derive from the day-to-day challenges faced by airport managers and can lead to innovative solutions.

Curt Castagna, president and CEO of Aeroplex/Aerolease Group, is a member of the Los Angeles County Airport Commission, president of the Van Nuys and Long Beach Airport Associations, and a board member of the National Air Transportation Association. A certified private and instrument-rated pilot, he has instructed courses in aviation administration at Cal State Los Angeles for over two decades.


The Lightning Legislation

April 22, 2016

In my almost three decades of experience on—or working with— Capitol Hill, I have come to the conclusion that Congress only has two speeds—glacial or lightning. In most instances, no matter how common sense or progressive the policy change you seek, one is resigned to the fact that it may take several sessions of Congress in order to achieve a policy goal. The typical holdup: timing. In other words, for various reasons, the stars just do not align—even if a proposal is recognized as helpful and noncontroversial. This is what made it especially satisfying last year when, after years of kicking the can down the road, NATA and other major associations in Washington were able to secure two important long-term changes in investment tax policy after years of short-term extensions.

As you could no doubt tell from the President’s column, when it comes to this year’s FAA reauthorization, we are in the equivalent of a congressional lightning round—and that’s when you have to be on your guard.

After years of seemingly endless policy forums, congressional “listening sessions,” and official hearings, the House Transportation Committee put pen to paper, drafted an FAA reauthorization bill, and released it for the world to see in early February 2016. At one level, the bill [H.R. 4441, the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR Act)] offered no surprises. The Chairman of the Transportation Committee, Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), has been upfront with his intentions since the summer of 2015. Recall, he shared his thinking with NATA members at the 2015 Aviation Business Conference. Chairman Shuster believes that, despite the encouragement and additional authorities provided by Congress over the years, the FAA’s handling of modernization and operations is too broken to be fixed and offered his solution–separating air traffic control from the FAA and operating it as a not-for-profit, user fee-funded corporation.

We respectfully disagree. Changes in the relationship between the agency’s air traffic control operation and its safety regulatory component should be carefully viewed in terms of the problem to be addressed, and whether the solution will continue to maintain a stable, safe and efficient system that protects access for all users of our system. Creating a potentially adversarial relationship between the remaining portion of FAA and an air traffic control corporation will create unintended consequences. In the end, we concluded that, while this has been a healthy policy debate, focused policy initiatives will better achieve the goal of a more efficient and flexible agency, well positioned to maintain America’s dominance in aviation.

The general rule in Washington: the faster you try to move a piece of major legislation, the more likely the goal is to avoid delving into its specifics. So, you know what came next. The aviation community was expected to digest an almost 300-page proposal—including a major shift in the FAA’s organization and funding—and be prepared to share its views on it with congressional decision makers at a hearing one week later. Even more problematic, the bill was voted on by the House Transportation Committee the very next day.

NATA swiftly posted our analysis of the bill on our website. NATA staff briefed our Board, Presidents Council and our committees on its implications and provided lawmakers with testimony. The night before markup, we waded through approximately 100 filed amendments looking for the good and the bad. We also found time to rebut the contention made at the hearing on the legislation that charter operations were largely high-end passenger jets like G5s or G6s and their paying user fees was “fair.”

The AIRR Act survived the committee and vote — barely. The vote was along party lines and two pilot members, Republicans Sam Graves (R-MO) and Todd Rokita (R-IN), joined all Transportation Democrats in opposition. The next step in the Transportation Committee’s legislative blitz, a vote on the House floor was slated to occur shortly after committee consideration. That was when, with your help, the proposal started taking flak from all sides. The general aviation community, particularly NATA members, weighed in with their elected representatives through our special webpage (www.nata.aero/nocorporation). Facing united Democratic opposition, concerns from other major House committees impacted by the proposal, and conservatives with grave suspicions about whether such a proposal was really just an open-ended invitation to increase travel costs through user fees— the House Leadership chose, at least for the moment, to shelve the proposal and turn to other priorities.

As Tom mentioned in his column, the shame in all this is: absent the air traffic control corporation proposal, the remainder of the AIRR Act represents a serious, bipartisan effort to help the FAA operate in a more efficient manner. Thanks to the help of NATA’s committees, we proposed to policy makers a number of ideas that have, in fact, been incorporated in the legislation. However, the good in this case does not outweigh the threat the legislation poses to aviation businesses and, indeed, to all of general aviation.

Though the AIRR Act appears bottled up for the moment, know that corporation proponents will not just walk away, they have sunk too much time and energy into the effort. So if you have not already, I urge you to go to our website (www.nata.aero/ nocorporation) and engage with your Congressman and Senators on this issue.

By Bill Deere, Senior Vice President for Government and External Affairs (republished from Q1 2016 Aviation Business Journal)


Airlines…..Unplugged

April 1, 2016

I had the opportunity last week to attend the U.S. Chamber’s annual Aviation Summit. “Aviation” in the title is really a misnomer. Despite the fact the Chamber has member companies with corporate flight departments, and even a wide array of other aviation businesses, make no mistake about it — this was an airline conference. The summit’s lack of balance was startling; this was a vehicle for airlines to get their message out and other viewpoints need not apply. Comfortable in what was clearly an enabling setting, airline executives felt empowered to say what they really think.

The leaders of the so-called low cost carriers were in lockstep about the dangers posed by four airlines with 80-percent domestic market share. Through their dialogue, they invited us to peak behind the curtain for a look at the impact of global joint ventures, noting for example three mega-alliances controlling 87 percent of the transatlantic market. They called upon the Department of Transportation to revisit these anti-trust waivers and immunized joint ventures…..and in the next breath they called upon Congress to adopt the Shuster proposal to create an airline dominated air traffic control corporation.

This is a demonstration of the old political adage, “where you are is where you sit.” Market concentration, it appears, is dangerous….unless of course you are part of it. This inability to either see or understand other perspectives is disappointing from people who are seemingly aware of the dangers created by market concentration. Even if we all saw creating an air traffic control corporation as a good idea, which we don’t, why would aviation businesses willingly sign up for a proposal that leaves their future costs to be determined by airlines?

However, the low cost carriers were just the warmup act, next came the airline association and a representative CEO from the big carriers. These speeches were carefully orchestrated and honed to two messages. First, congressional policymakers who offer pro-consumer proposals related to airline seats or pricing of various airline fees are intent on nothing less than re-regulating the airline industry. The airlines’ view of consumer legislation was best summarized by the head of their trade association who told the crowd, “Members of Congress, with all due respect, if you want to run an airline, buy some planes, hire some employees and sell some tickets.” Well, to paraphrase Ricky Bobby, he did say, “with all due respect.”

The wrath of these airline leaders was especially reserved for those who dare oppose their plan to create an air traffic control corporation. Those in opposition to the corporation are nothing more than “entrenched interests fighting to maintain their advantage.” Their response to the bipartisan work of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune and Ranking Member Bill Nelson that did not include a proposal to corporatize air traffic control, “The Senate took the easy way out.”

Worse are the half-statements that come along with addresses of these sort. For example, we were told airlines believe in a user fee-funded corporation so much they are willing to write their own checks to the corporation for the air traffic services they use. How altruistic. Except of course the real cost will be borne by the customer and the corporation proposal neatly removes accountability for those costs from a consumer’s direct scrutiny — let alone the costs the airlines will attempt to shift to general aviation. Other whoppers rehashed in front of a largely adoring crowd included the suggestion that air traffic controllers are using 1950’s technology, or that 60 countries currently operating corporatized systems are in some way more efficient or safer than ours.

Airlines also tried to dispel the notion they don’t want to run the corporation by noting the composition of the air traffic control board was changed late in the House committee process with the addition of two more seats for general aviation, bringing GA to the same number of seats as the airlines. While no doubt equal in number, it’s arguable those seats are not equal in weight. The corporation CEO, who also holds a board vote, will undoubtedly feel the pressure of the four votes that represent the overwhelming amount of corporation funding. In addition, this is not a proposal that is yet set in stone.   Neatly forgotten by these airline leaders during the conference, their complaint to Congress that the original proposal already lacked a sufficient number of airline stakeholders, particularly given the representation from general aviation — stakeholders that in their view pay next to nothing. We should not expect the airlines to give up on their attempts to “perfect” the board’s composition.

I report all this to remind you that despite some press reports, the airline industry is not giving up. Between now and July 15th (when the current FAA reauthorization again expires) we must be vigilant and engaged with our elected lawmakers if we are to withstand the imposition of the airline worldview on consumers and general aviation.

By Bill Deere, Senior Vice President for Government and External Affairs


NATA 75: An Industry Voice Is More Important Than Ever

December 28, 2015

 

As we launch into our anniversary year, reading the excellent history of the association written by Paul Seidenman and David J. Spanovich (page 18) underscores just how important it is for aviation businesses to have a voice to represent them in the public policy arena. As the article demonstrates, NATA’s birth was directly linked to the future of civil aviation, when the association’s founders had the vision to join together and intervene at a critical juncture, not letting the military in effect—take over—American aviation. In fact, the article is replete with examples, large and small, of how the association’s intervention made a difference in supporting aviation businesses’ contin­ued growth in this vital, and uniquely American, part of our economy.

It is easy to understand the advantages of membership when viewed from a purely business perspective. Many NATA members, for example, take advantage of the association’s industry leading workers’ compensa­tion insurance program or perhaps its Safety 1st training. However, the need for a public policy presence is not something that is always readily apparent nor easily quantified.

Perhaps because of our history, NATA members see that need. In our recent membership survey, advocacy was rated as one of the most important aspects of membership. It is also borne out by the fact that when the call for help goes out to aviation businesses, NATA members respond.

Looking ahead to 2016 we, like our founders, continue to see challenges and opportunities for aviation busi­nesses. On our immediate horizon is the upcoming FAA reauthorization bill. While events in 2015, the leadership crisis that resulted in a new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, and the difficul­ties of financing a multi-year surface transportation bill, slowed down the FAA bill in Congress—make no mis­take about it—the airlines still want the keys to the air traffic control system.

In early December, Airlines for America (the trade group representing the major carriers) and the CEOs of the nation’s six major airlines were in Washington, D.C., talking to lawmak­ers about their desire to create an independent, user-fee funded air traffic control organization. Don’t think they are serious? When the world’s largest airline, Delta, announced it was leav­ing the trade group in a disagreement over this and other policies the airlines are pursuing, the remaining members waived the association’s required de­parture notice allowing Delta to leave immediately.

The idea of privatizing air traffic control has been one pursued by others as well, some frustrated by the pace of modernization, others concerned the congressional budget process has bro­ken down to the point where funding for the agency may no longer be able to keep up with the future needs of the system.

While NATA agrees the FAA could certainly stand the injection of more private sector practices, we view the unknowns associated with corporati­zation as simply too great to risk. Can such a proposal be safely implemented in a system many times larger and far more complex than any other in the world? Will its implementation set back the cause of modernization rather than enhance it? And what happens to general aviation, a uniquely American user not really a large factor elsewhere in the world? Will new costs and fees in effect deny your businesses and cus­tomers access to airports and airways necessary to your operating a viable business?

While a huge concern, I don’t want to leave you with the impression this is the sole issue confronting avia­tion businesses. We are still working to unwind a 2012 IRS opinion that concluded that aircraft management fees are “transportation” and therefore management service providers should be assessing the 7.5 percent commer­cial ticket tax on amounts paid for those services. We are also working as part of a broad national coalition to bring certainty to investment policy by making permanent bonus depreciation and Section 179 expensing. Finally, the NATA regulatory team is working across a myriad of issues, before the FAA, the TSA, and Customs, among others, looking to bring common-sense and your real world perspective to the issues under consideration by the exec­utive branch.

Our issues are not always defen­sive. Our committee members were instrumental in developing a positive agenda for the FAA reauthorization bill. In fact one agenda item, requiring the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, to conduct a study of diversions of non-commercial jet fuel tax revenues to the Highway Trust Fund, was just incorporated into the recently enacted surface transportation bill. We are also particularly proud of the ongoing effort by NATA and AAAE members to identify and address the issues that divide and can unite airports and their tenants.

So as Tom Hendricks says, our future is bright and getting brighter by the day. As we move into what could be a watershed year in aviation, stay involved, and stay engaged. In the end, you are aviation businesses best advocates!

By Bill Deere, Senior Vice President for Government and External Affairs


Speaker Boehner’s Parting Gift

November 2, 2015

No one could have predicted the circumstances under which Congress and the Administration were able to bring about last week’s long-term budget agreements.

The resignation announcement by House Speaker John Boehner immediately cleared the way for a bill funding the government through December 11th.  It also allowed the outgoing Speaker to “clean up the barn” and resolve potentially debilitating issues for incoming Speaker Paul D. Ryan.  In a move worthy of the climactic scene in The Godfather, outgoing Speaker Boehner settled political scores by successfully negotiating a two-year adjustment to federal discretionary spending levels and raising the nation’s debt ceiling through March, 2017.

This is good news for aviation.  As NATA’s President Tom Hendricks observed earlier in the week, the legislation addresses two threats to our industry – the ramifications of defaulting on our nation’s debts and a potential shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration. Let’s look at the numbers behind the agreement and talk about what happens next.

The Deal

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 amends the discretionary spending caps (the 30% of federal spending directly appropriated by Congress on an annual basis) for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 as seen below:

Discretionary Spending Caps (in billions)
Old Cap FY16 Revised FY16 Old Cap FY17 Revised FY17
Defense $523 $548 $536 $551
Non-defense $493 $518 $503 $518
Total $1,016 $1,066 $1,039 $1,069

One interesting question is whether all parties involved will consider this a two-year spending deal.  After all, the agreement includes virtually no increase in spending between FY2016 and FY2017.  However, veteran appropriators have observed the 2013 Ryan-Murray deal had a similar tight spending level in year two and all parties involved lived within it.As you see, these levels represent increases of $50 billion and $30 billion respectively over the FY16 and FY17 spending levels established in 2011.  Recall that in his February budget request, President Obama proposed a $75 billion discretionary spending increase above the FY2016 caps.

Next Steps

So the chances of a government shutdown have been dramatically reduced but we are not completely out of the woods yet.

Remember, the current continuing resolution (CR) temporarily funds the government by continuing funding levels from the prior year, but it expires on December 11th.  The increases in overall discretionary spending provided in the agreement will allow congressional appropriators the budget ceiling needed to complete work on the FY2016 federal budget –including funding for the FAA.  However one issue still remains, will policy riders, typically in the form of prohibitions against certain types of spending, derail concluding work on the FY2016 budget?

Reports indicate that work on the spending bills has already begun and will likely result in the dreaded “omnibus” appropriation bill where the twelve separate spending bills will be rolled into one mega spending bill.

By Bill Deere, Senior Vice President for Government and External Affairs


The FAA Budget Request For FY2016

February 5, 2015

On Monday, the Administration submitted to Congress a $4 trillion budget proposal for FY2016 that includes $15.84 billion for the FAA. In context with the President’s other discretionary spending proposals, the increases in funding for FAA operations, modernization and research will be difficult to sustain through the budget process unless Congress and the President reach a new agreement on overall discretionary spending levels.

FY2016 FAA Budget Request

FY2015        Proposed FY2016 (% change from FY15)

Ops                 $9.74b          $9.915b (+2%)

F&E                $2.6b             $2.855b (+10%)

RE&D             $157m          $166m (+6%)

AIP                  $3.35b          $2.9b (-13%)*

Total               $15.847        $15.836

*Proposal assumes increase in the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) from $4.50 to $8.00 and focusing remaining funds on smaller commercial and GA airports.

Highlights:

Operations – $9.915b (+2%)

  • 85 additional FTEs requested for additional flight standards safety inspectors and aircraft certification engineers.

Facilities & Equipment – $2.86b (+10%)

  • $845m for NextGen capital investments.

RE&D – $166m (+6%)

  • Maintains $6m in funding for alternative GA fuels.
  • Largest proposed increases are in the Flightdeck/Maintenance/System Integration Human Factors program ($3.9m) and weather program ($3.4m).

Airport Improvement Program – $2.9b (-13%)

  • While an overall reduction, the Administration believes that limiting the use of AIP to smaller commercial service and GA airports would represent an increase in available funds in those categories.
  • The GAO estimates increasing the Passenger Facility Charge from $4.50 to $8.00 will generate approximately $2.4b in additional funding to the larger airports.

User Fees

  • The Administration has finally dropped a proposal to derive part of its budget from a $100 per flight surcharge on general aviation flights.

Tax

Trends in FAA spending

Because of the proposed shift in AIP spending, it is not a straightforward exercise to assess the proposed FAA budget increase in the context of other domestic discretionary spending proposals. However, the proposed increases for operations, F&E and RE&D are 3.5% above current levels. This is in contrast to the Administration’s total proposed domestic discretionary funding increase of 7%.

While the additional proposed spending for FY2016 in F&E and RE&D are welcome, it does not appear those increases will be sustained in the long-term. The Administration’s out-year projections of FAA funding average approximately 2% growth through 2025 (see charts below). AIP would be sustained at the $2.9b level until FY2020 when it is projected to rise to $3.35b per year through FY2025. The proposed 10% increase in F&E funding for FY2016 actually increases out-year funding for modernization by $200m annually above the levels the agency reported to Congress just last summer in its capital development proposal.

chart1

chart2

Budget Outlook

So now we know. Last week in our scene setter we discussed the FAA budget proposal for FY2016 in context of its place within overall discretionary spending. We noted that discretionary spending is an increasingly smaller part of the federal budget and capped in statute by the Budget Control Act to allow for a less than one percent increase in spending next year. We also noted that in response to this situation the President has three choices:

  1. Submit a budget proposal adhering to the caps;
  2. Ignore the caps, propose spending increases and let Congress agree or make cuts to his proposals;
  3. Propose new user fees and taxes to offset any proposed spending increases.

The President’s budget proposal essentially uses elements of choices #2 &#3. His overall discretionary spending numbers are 7% above the caps and the overall proposed budget would still deficit spend by $474 billion.

Discretionary Spending Caps (in billions)
Enacted FY15 Current Law FY16 President FY 16
 (proposed)
Defense $521 $523 $561
Non-defense $492 $493 $530
Total $1,013 $1,016 $1,091

The ball is now in Congress’ court. It can live within the discretionary caps, which limit overall funding increases to less than one percent, and develop appropriations bills that are essentially flat. This would be difficult for many agencies to absorb. For example, given increased annual costs in categories such as FAA operations, a flat budget will essentially represent a cut to other parts of the FAA budget.

However, the President’s offer of increased defense discretionary spending may be intriguing to many congressional Republicans and could serve as the basis for a compromise similar to the Ryan-Murray agreement in 2013 when the discretionary caps were adjusted using various budgetary slight-of-hands to offset the increased funding.

By Bill Deere, Senior Vice President for Government and External Affairs

Visit or return to NATA website: www.nata.aero


Federal Budgets, Sequesters and the FAA

January 28, 2015

One of the things I have noticed since returning to aviation is the use of the term “sequestration,” with its implication that at some point this year or next there could be another mindless, across-the-board cut applied to the FAA budget. The good news is that thanks to the agreement reached in late 2013 between then House and Senate Budget Committee Chairmen Paul Ryan and Patty Murray and President Obama, we know that the application of an across-the-board cut to the FAA budget will not occur this year and is unlikely in future years.

We also know the overall budget numbers that lawmakers will be working from this year absent a change in law. However, that doesn’t make the FAA’s budget picture necessarily brighter. The Administration will release its FY2016 budget proposal next Monday, so now is a good time to review the FAA’s budget and what we should be looking for on budget day.

FAA Spending In Context

To understand the FAA’s budget situation we have to first understand the overall federal spending. The FAA’s annual budget of approximately $16 billion is part of a category of spending known as discretionary spending. In other words, Congress must annually fund discretionary programs through the passage of 12 appropriations bills. However, as we see in the chart below, discretionary spending is a small part of overall government spending.

blogchart1

Mandatory spending programs are determined by eligibility rules rather than the annual appropriations process.  As you saw above, these programs represent the largest portion of annual federal spending. Examples of mandatory spending include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps.

Breaking discretionary spending down further, we see that over half of all discretionary spending is devoted to national defense. As a result, the FAA competes for resources against a number of other worthy causes for a slice of the federal spending pie that represents only 13% of all government spending.

blogchart2

So the budget fights between Congress and the President of the last four years — fights that have resulted in government shutdowns and across-the-board program cuts — have largely been directed at approximately one-third of annual federal funding.

Worse, as you see below, discretionary spending has been steadily shrinking and will continue to shrink because mandatory spending is the real driver of annual budget deficits and growing debt.

blogchart3

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report this week noting that while an improved economy and reduced spending has reduced the size of annual budget deficits, they will begin to climb again starting in 2019, driven by the healthcare and other retirement costs of the baby-boom generation.  The CBO also noted that federal debt held by the public will amount to 74 percent of GDP at the end of this fiscal year—more than twice what it was at the end of 2007 and higher than in any year since 1950 and that by 2025 it will rise to nearly 79 percent of GDP.

So what does this all mean? First, feel free to be less than impressed by those who brag about controlling federal spending, as some budgetary wits have nicknamed them the “One-Third Serious Caucus.” To really control government spending you have to, like Willie Sutton, go where the money is – mandatory spending.

In fairness to lawmakers, it is political suicide to reduce the benefits of mandatory spending programs absent the kind of grand budget deal that requires Congressional members from both parties and the President to all hold hands and jump in together.

Sequester Level Spending

A 2011 agreement between Congress and the President to address the seemingly endless disputes about federal spending and the debt limit resulted in the creation of a congressional “Super Committee” to develop a plan to control spending through savings in discretionary and mandatory spending and changes to revenue policy (i.e. taxes). A failure to reach agreement would trigger a “sequester” on the current and future federal discretionary spending levels contained in the agreement. It was thought at the time that the possibility of draconian cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending would motivate lawmakers from both parties to reach agreement.

So of course lawmakers could not reach agreement, and by March of 2013 the sequester was triggered that cut part of the FAA’s funding mid-way through the fiscal year.

The situation reached comical proportions later in 2013 when House floor debate on discretionary spending bills for the following year (FY2014) became impossible as few members wanted to face the consequences to federal programs required by the draconian discretionary spending levels created by the sequester. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, also known as the Ryan-Murray Agreement, created more realistic discretionary funding levels for FY2014 and FY2015 to act as a bridge to the levels sequestration requires for FY’s 2016-2021. Below are the discretionary limits (in billions) to which the Congress and the President must adhere absent a change in law:

blogchart4(2)

Source: OMB, Budget for Fiscal Year 2015, The Budget, Table S-10 and CBO, The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024, February 2014, Box 1-1.

So when you hear someone express concern about “sequester spending levels,” they are referring to the numbers above, not the possibility of across-the- board spending cuts.

The question of whether discretionary spending is sustainable at the sequester levels was discussed at a recent event at the Brookings Institution. Opinions ranged from doable in the short-term to the possibility that, similar to the Ryan-Murray Agreement of 2013, Congress could once again “game the caps.” There was also discussion about whether lawmakers would attempt to stay within the overall discretionary cap but move some portion of non-defense discretionary spending to defense, something that would exacerbate the FAA’s budget challenge.

The FY2016 Budget Proposal and the FAA

The President will submit his budget proposal to Congress on Monday, February 2nd, marking the start of another part of the annual congressional calendar, the development of the FY2016 budget.

As we see above, the Ryan-Murray budget deal of 2013 was a bridge of increased discretionary funding for FY2014 and FY2015 to approach the cap level on discretionary spending for FY2016 (including the FAA’s budget). For next year it is almost the same level as the current year. This would make a major funding increase for the FAA unlikely absent a decision to cut other discretionary spending.

However, the President has choices, he may:

  • Submit a proposal adhering to the caps;
  • Ignore the caps, propose spending increases and let Congress agree or make cuts to his proposals;
  • Propose new user fees and taxes to offset any proposed spending increases.

These choices will not only impact the FAA but also tell us a great deal about how smoothly we can expect the budget process to unfold this year.

Finally, we will also be watching to see if the administration proposal will continue to contain proposals impacting GA in a negative way including user fees, cuts to contract tower funding and changes to the aircraft depreciation schedule.

More next week.

By Bill Deere, Senior Vice President for Government and External Affairs

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