WASHINGTON — The U.S. government needs to invest at least $2 billion annually in the nation's airports to safely accommodate an increase in air travel expected over the next 15 to 20 years, according to an independent panel created to study the Federal Aviation Administration's funding needs.
The National Civil Aviation Review Commission, in a report issued Thursday, also said the FAA's air traffic control system should be restructured as a partially private "performance-based organization" run by a chief operating officer and a board of directors appointed by the president from the private sector.
"The Federal Aviation Administration currently lacks the organizational, management and the financial wherewithal to keep pace with the dynamic aviation community," the report's authors said.
Under the proposal, the FAA administrator would chair a seven-member board that would approve all policies and major capital investments in the nation's air traffic control system. Subject to Senate confirmation, board members would serve five-year staggered terms. The report also proposes giving the agency greater flexibility to lease equipment and to borrow from private lenders.
If changes at the FAA aren't made, the nation's aviation system will "succumb to gridlock," the authors said.
FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, the agency's top official, welcomed the commission's recommendations. She said that under the current system, the FAA is beholden to an array of different stakeholders, including Congress, the White House, other government agencies and the airline industry, which sometimes have "competing agendas and competing goals."
That, coupled with the agency's "lack of a focused agenda . . . contributes to a perception of an agency that is reactive and unresponsive," Garvey said.
Report authors also said the FAA should be given greater freedom to spend surplus balances in the aviation trust fund to make improvements in the nation's air traffic control system and airports and to cover other operating costs.
Currently, the trust fund, which is replenished by revenue from a handful of aviation excise taxes, has a surplus of about $3 billion, which the federal government uses to offset other spending.
The panel pointed out that funding for federal airport improvement programs was reduced by nearly $500 million, or 23%, between fiscal 1992 and 1996. Federal funding for airport improvements in the year that began Oct. 1 is $1.7 billion, $300 million below the level sought by the panel.
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said he plans to submit FAA overhaul legislation to Congress when members return to Washington next year.