Air Line Pilot, June/July 2003

President’s Forum:  Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

We airline pilots sometimes think with our short-term wallets and not with our long-term common sense. For example, some ALPA members have voiced strong support for the Administration’s latest round of tax cuts and are already watching for their few hundreds or thousands of dollars to appear in the mail. These same pilots show no fear that such massive tax cuts may jeopardize their ability to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of their careers.

For many years, ALPA has lobbied and worked with our governments and airline managements to ensure that adequate funding was available to modernize our airspace systems and to maintain our required high margins of safety.

We applauded the U.S. government when AIR 21 became law as a positive, long-term plan to ensure the survival of our industry. The program would provide hundreds of thousands of jobs, drive the nation’s economy forward, and work out the kinks in the National Airspace System that have led to more than $5 billion in annual airline losses caused by delays and by increasing passenger frustrations with airline travel.

Instead of the U.S. government forging ahead with the plan, we now see that government returning a few dollars to our pockets while the U.S. infrastructure crumbles from old age, neglect, and abuse. We are falling behind in our progression to modernize our airspace systems.

Many of the advances in navigation and surveillance technologies that we have promoted can make possible safely and accurately positioning airplanes closer to each other and to threatening weather. For these programs to be acceptable to the airline piloting community, the effects of wake turbulence and weather phenomena must be fully factored into risk analyses of any such program. 

For the coming fiscal year, however, the FAA’s proposed budget for aviation weather research was reduced by approximately 20 percent. The proposed budget for wake turbulence is $0; that’s right, nothing at all.

In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, funding reductions for the controller/pilot datalink communications program resulted in a slowdown in testing of that system. This in turn slowed air carriers in placing the equipment in their airliners, which then diminished the benefits that the FAA sought, resulting in the agency’s halting the project for now. A promising technology is now years, instead of months, away from being in cockpits--if it arrives at all.

Airspace and procedural changes necessary to take advantage of area navigation (RNAV), designed to save airlines millions of dollars every year, are being delayed because of budget cuts. The result will be a continuation of the long lines of airplanes, still flying VOR to VOR across the United States on less-than-optimal routes. 

Although just commissioned, the wide area augmentation system (WAAS), which would increase the navigation accuracy of global positioning systems in the terminal area, has been delayed several years because of reduced appropriations. 

Thus, airlines and crews have been unable to realize the advantages of this new technology.

The current economic environment holds little hope for adequate funding to move our aviation infrastructure into the future, or even to maintain the status quo. No profession relies on government infrastructure as much as ours does. Additionally, we know that Congress needs to permanently shift security costs to the Department of Homeland Security. But how is that going to happen with skyrocketing deficits?

Nonetheless, the Administration has renewed the push to privatize U.S. ATC functions. This proposal is not an indication that private industry can provide better ATC. It is simply another way of forcing more user fees onto passengers and cargo shippers. Air traffic control in the United States is an inherently governmental function that needs to be funded principally through the U.S. general treasury--through income taxes, not increased user fees.

Unless we can set a new flightpath for our governments, new pilots will soon not have expectations of making a decent living, mature pilots will soon not be assured that their airline and retirement savings will survive, and passengers will soon not choose airlines as their preferred mode of travel.

If you do not find anything humorous in the phrase, “If you have time to spare, go by air,” then may I suggest that we U.S. airline pilots take a portion of our tax rebates and invest it in ALPA-PAC--doing so may help save our careers.

s/Duane E. Woerth