For a Better FAA

The idea that federal (and state) regulators ought to sit down with the people they regulate seems to be catching on.

Federal agencies, under attack for excessive red tape and bureaucratic inflexibility, are trying to streamline. In many cases, from EPA to OSHA, agency heads talk about encouraging and helping people to meet regulatory standards rather than taking the traditional confrontational approach.

One agency that could use a good dose of this attitude is the Federal Aviation Administration. Under current practice, the FAA hardly ever talks with the airlines before issuing edicts. This leads to what the airlines consider to be a lot of impractical, wasteful, and expensive procedures.

The FAA holds that (1) bringing airlines into the process would let the fox into the henhouse; and (2) national security bars sharing certain information with airline officials. Both arguments are weak. It's time the agency recognized that the airlines have expertise, too, and consulted them in the rulemaking process.

A collaborative approach takes away none of the agency's authority to place the safety of the traveling public before profits (and remember, the airlines also have a deep self-interest in safety). It also should not prevent FAA inspectors from doing their job properly. If recent congressional testimony by two FAA inspectors is any guide, this is a problem even under the current system: Training is inadequate and the agency is alleged to be more interested in proper paperwork than actual aircraft airworthiness.

We've noted before that the FAA seriously needs reform. The air-traffic system is burdened by rapidly increasing numbers of flights, outdated equipment, controller burnout, and bureaucratic inertia. A step in the right direction was the rewriting of the FAA's procurement regulations, announced in late March. Those regs had been so convoluted that they often resulted in equipment purchased by the aviation agency that was obsolete even before it was delivered.

But close observers say it will take a lot more than that to move the agency, and the all-important air-traffic system it manages, into the 21st century - or even into the late 20th. The FAA's culture needs to change; moving to a more merit-based personnel system would help.

Some have suggested privatizing or corporatizing the FAA. But that idea meets a good deal of resistance on Capitol Hill, where influential congressmen worry that under such an arrangement safety would take a back seat. Another approach would be spinning the FAA off as an independent agency separate from the Transportation Department that now oversees it.

A bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona would keep the FAA in the Transportation Department, but give the administrator broader powers, extend his or her term, and eliminate some of the required consultation with the secretary of transportation.

A more crucial problem is funding. The ticket excise tax expired Dec. 31 and, in the budget brouhaha, has not been renewed. Since then, the FAA has drawn $19 million a day from the aviation trust fund to cover the lost revenue. This will soon deplete the fund.

The FAA says the gap between its costs and its congressional appropriation is growing. The agency and some on the hill would prefer multiyear budgeting and a revenue stream independent of politics. This has led to proposals to replace the excise tax paid by travelers with a user fee on takeoffs and landings paid by the airlines. Some senators oppose that because they don't believe the FAA really needs the extra money. The airlines don't like the idea because they don't trust the agency to come up with a fair fee system. The low-cost airlines in particular believe such a system would unfairly burden them, since their short-haul routes involve far more takeoffs and landings than those of the long-haul major carriers.

The question of whether aviation funds should be on or off budget is also at issue. Senator McCain and FAA administrator David Hinson would like to earmark the user fees so that they would go directly to the agency, but the airlines and several other senators don't like that, either.

The McCain bill is set to come up on the Senate floor, but given airline opposition to user fees, its prospects for passage are unclear. A compromise offered earlier by Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska might be a way out: Conduct a six-month audit of the agency to determine its real needs, then create a blue-ribbon commission with representatives of all interested parties to make recommendations to Congress on how to reorganize the FAA and how to fund the system. This approach has many supporters in and out of Congress, and would ensure that everyone gets a say. Whether Congress would adopt the recommendations, of course, is a different matter entirely.

One thing is clear: The US air-traffic system is near the breaking point. To improve it, serious organizational and administrative changes must take place at the FAA. Congress should move the issue onto the front burner.

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