Airport officials anxious over federal funding

WASHINGTON — The authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration is set to expire in just a week, and neither the House nor Senate has yet moved forward on legislation to extend it.

The legislation is required to continue the work of the FAA, which regulates civil aviation across the country. But the bill has been stuck in limbo amid a few lingering disagreements, including over whether to privatize air traffic control services.

Congress is likely to move forward with a short-term extension ahead of the September 30 deadline, according to committee staff, with the aim of taking up a longer-term bill next month.

But the stakes are high for aviation in Vermont, where many say federal support is critical to air travel programs. The head of the Burlington airport said staff is “on pins and needles” over the reauthorization.

Many involved in aviation in Vermont oppose the most controversial issue on the table in the FAA authorization discussions: a proposal to make air traffic control an independent, non-governmental entity.

The concept is favored by the Republican leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. A spokesperson for the committee said that the proposal currently in the House bill would establish air traffic control as a non-profit overseen by a board of aviation stakeholders.

President Donald Trump endorsed the privatization of air traffic control earlier this year. However, many in Washington remain opposed, and the proposal is not included in a Senate version of the FAA reauthorization bill.

Planes rest on the tarmac at the Middlebury State Airport in East Middlebury. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

In Vermont, privatization has met opposition from many, including the head of Vermont’s largest airport and members of the state’s congressional delegation.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said in an interview that separating air traffic control from the FAA would incentivize cutting costs and could decrease the quality of service.

Privatization of air traffic control also may result in fees to airlines that could be damaging to small regional airports, like those in Vermont, according to Welch.

“It’s very threatening to rural air service,” he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., favors modernizing air traffic control, but he opposes privatizing it — as he has done in past FAA reauthorization cycles, according to a staffer.

Gene Richards, the director of aviation at Burlington International Airport, said he does not support the proposal to change how air traffic control operates.

While Richards sees how some believe there could be a financial argument for changing the system, he does not see a “compelling reason” to do so. The current system has a good safety record, he said.

“You can’t always look at dollars and cents,” he said.

Air traffic control is just one component of FAA reauthorization and the federal appropriations process that those involved Vermont aviation are watching.

Richards said airport staff are anxious about the reauthorization.

“We’re actually nervous every year,” Richards said.

Aviation is “not funded as well as it needs to be,” he said, and there is plenty of competition for the available resources. Burlington International is one of 50 New England airports that the FAA oversees, and it contends against those others for funding for upgrades.

The airport in Burlington — the largest in Vermont — relies on FAA authorization for funding for key infrastructure improvements, according to airport officials.

Burlington International recently used funding from the FAA to replace a beacon for navigation purposes that was 70 years old. Without that piece of equipment, the airport couldn’t run, according to Richards.

“That means that people can’t travel,” he said. “Our economic engine fails.”

Every time authorization comes up, there tends to be lots of negotiating and short-term extensions, he said. That leaves airports facing considerable uncertainty when planning what infrastructure improvements to prioritize.

In order to deal with the uncertainty, Burlington airport officials keep a backlog of projects that will be ready to go when resources become available.

“We call it shelving,” Richards said. “We plan a project, put it on the shelf and pray.”

According to Nic Longo, director of planning and development at Burlington International, there are four major infrastructure improvement projects ready to go.

Longo said another key part of the reauthorization bill officials are watching would double a fee levied on passenger ticket sales that goes to fund local projects at the airport. The reauthorization package is expected to increase that fee to $8 per ticket, from $4, according to Burlington International officials.

If Congress does not act to authorize the FAA by the end-of-month deadline, Burlington International would continue to operate, but say it would face financial challenges.

“We would tighten our belts. We would patch holes,” Richards said. “We would do what Vermonters do. We would make ends meet and we would get by.”

Michele Boomhower, a director at the Vermont Agency of Transportation who oversees aviation, said federal support is “huge” for air travel in Vermont.

“We couldn’t have aviation programs without the federal support,” she said.

There are 10 state airports, which in recent years have had significant investments to improve runways, safety features and other changes funded largely by federal dollars, she said.

In addition to one-time grants that support infrastructure projects, Vermont annually receives about $2 million in federal funding to support aviation operations, according to Boomhower.

Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport, the only hub in Vermont that runs commercial passenger service other than Burlington, relies on federal funding through the essential air service program.

Cape Air, a regional carrier that mainly operates in the Northeast, receives a subsidy of $1.6 million annually from the federal government to support services to Rutland, according to Boomhower.

Approximately 11,000 passengers use Cape Air out of Rutland annually, according to Boomhower. Additionally, between 6,000 and 12,000 people come through the airport each year on private carriers.

Welch said the essential air service program is an ongoing area of concern for him when the aviation reauthorization package comes up. The program is designed to entice airlines to serve more rural areas, instead of just gravitating to large hubs.

Though the program seems poised to be fully funded this year, he noted it often comes up in discussions as possibly on the chopping block.

“It is at risk. It’s always at risk,” Welch said.

Rutland Mayor David Allaire, who supported the application for essential air service funding for the local airport, said the hub is important to the economy in and around Rutland.

“It’s become a real lifeline for a lot of business people,” he said.

He said it can be a challenge for local economic development to face short-term extensions, instead of long-term ones.

“When you don’t have that stable source of funding, it makes it that much harder to sell your area,” Allaire said.

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