Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), chaired a hearing of the Senate Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations subcommittee on the FY14 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) budget. The subcommittee heard testimony from FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General Calvin Scovel. During the hearing, Chairman Murray questioned Administrator Huerta about airport contract tower closures in the wake of sequestration and the impact on employee furloughs. On March 22, the FAA announced that it would stop federal funding for 149 contract towers across the country. The FAA will stop funding all 149 towers on June 15 and will close the facilities unless the airports decide to continue operations using local funding.
"Under the FAA's original plan, to comply with sequestration, the FAA said they expected to save between forty to fifty million dollars by shutting down 173 contract towers as soon as the first week in April," Chairman Murray said during the hearing. "But under the FAA's most recent plans, 149 towers are expected to close and my understanding is that will start June 15th. Can you explain to us, Mr. Huerta, what is the latest estimate of how much will be saved by closing down those towers and whether those savings will significantly reduce the number of furloughs at the FAA?"
Chairman Murray's opening remarks as prepared:
"Today we will hear testimony from FAA Administrator Huerta and DOT Inspector General Scovel on the President's fiscal year 2014 budget request for the Federal Aviation Administration. I want to welcome both of our witnesses, and thank you for being here this morning.
"This hearing marks the beginning of our process to build a budget for the FAA for fiscal year 2014, but as we take a close look at the agency's budget request for the coming year, we must acknowledge where we stand today.
"For too long, some members of Congress have been unwilling to reach a fair and balanced compromise on deficit reduction. And as a result, we are now the facing drastic and arbitrary cuts to federal spending that is required under sequestration.
"The process of sequestration has slashed the FAA's budget by more than $630 million, and it has hit just about every part of the agency: Its operations and management of air traffic; Its capital investments, including NextGen, the modernization of its air traffic control system; and Its research activities.
"Some here in Washington, D.C., claim that the effect of such cuts will be minimal, but Secretary LaHood has spoken out about the real impact these cuts will have on the FAA and our aviation system. He talked about how sequestration means that the FAA will furlough its air traffic controllers, close down contract towers, and delay NextGen
"Secretary LaHood made it clear that the FAA will not sacrifice the safety of our aviation system. Instead, the agency will reduce its services while ensuring air travel remains safe. However, reductions in air traffic control services will translate directly into an increase in travel delays.
"We still need to see the details on how the FAA plans to implement the cuts required by sequestration. We need to know: How the FAA will invest its funding for facilities and equipment; How many furlough days will be imposed on FAA employees; and After delays in the FAA's schedule for closing down contract towers, the status of each and every tower in the coming months.
"This is important information for the subcommittee to consider as it develops a funding bill for next year.
"Sequestration and a year-long CR enacted well into the fiscal year have made 2013 a challenging year for agencies. But the fact remains that we have implemented large cuts to the funding for the federal government, and we still don't know exactly what government services will look like after those cuts are implemented.
"For fiscal year 2014, we must take seriously our responsibility to pass a budget that not only determines the total level of government spending, but that reflects our priorities, and puts into place the services that we want to see fulfilled next year.
"We also need to make sure that any potential cuts to the air traffic control system are fair and that FAA's process is transparent, with adequate consideration given to the benefits and costs of specific tower closures.
"Putting together this budget means that we must take a hard look the work that the FAA has been doing.
"The FAA manages the most complex airspace in the world, and it is a world leader in protecting aviation safety. Mr. Huerta, I look forward to hearing about your budget request and what you want to accomplish in the coming year.
"But we must also recognize problems at the FAA. The agency's history is filled with capital programs that run over budget, past deadlines, and do not deliver on all of the promised capabilities. These problems continue to burden the FAA.
"The agency recently awarded its Systems Engineering 2020 contract, which has a maximum value of $7.3 billion. For a contract of this size, it is disturbing that a recent report issued from the Office of the Inspector General found that the FAA cannot track costs accurately.
"NextGen requires the FAA to coordinate the development of several complex capital programs. However, another recent report from the OIG points out that problems with the ERAM (E-RAM) program have directly contributed to two years of delay in the FAA's effort to transition from voice to data communication, an essential part of NextGen.
"Problems continue to plague the FAA's operations as well.
"Just this past February, the OIG issued a report on the increase in operational errors by air traffic controllers. The FAA is unable to determine whether the increase in errors reflects better data collection, or an increase in actual errors committed by controllers. In addition, the FAA does not have a baseline that can be used to measure any improvement in operational errors.
"The OIG has also reported recently on the FAA's inability to develop an effective model for its aviation inspector staffing. After spending seven years developing it, the FAA still does not have a model that it can use to justify its budget request or to place its aviation inspectors efficiently across the globe.
"Mr. Scovel, your office has done excellent work on all of these topics, and I look forward to hearing your perspective on the issues we discuss this morning.
"We need to hold the FAA accountable for how it spends taxpayer dollars. As we move forward in this tight budget environment, the FAA cannot afford to continue this kind of mismanagement.
"At the same time, we need to do our job here in Congress. We need the FAA doing its job on aviation, not trying to figure out how to move forward without a real budget in place.
"And that is why it is so important for this Committee and this Congress to return to regular order: To pass a full appropriations act that reflects the priorities of the Congress, and to pass it on time and through the regular process."