Out of a clear blue Arizona sky – the kind best enjoyed while soaking in the vast silence at Grand Canyon – Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake introduced a 3-page amendment aimed at repairing NextGen noise impacts. The Senate promptly passed the amendment, by a unanimous vote. Here is a copy of a McCain Press Release:
The amendment was thus added to the 2016 THUD Appropriations bill, HR2577. The Senate is expected to make their final vote on the full bill, perhaps within a week. It will then need to obtain House approval of the amendment (and any other changes) before it can become law.
‘THUD’ stands for ‘Transportation, Housing & Urban Development, and Related Agencies’. In other words, this single piece of legislation covers FAA and all other units of the Department of Transportation (highways, rail, maritime, pipelines, etc.), AND ALSO INCLUDES public housing, community grants, and other vast programs under the Department of Housing & Urban Development. Therefore, it is not surprising that, of the eighty amendments tabulated on the Congress.gov webpage, only a few have to do with FAA.
A close look at the FAA-related amendments suggests, in most cases, each proposal was simply to make a statement of protest against a specific agency expenditure or action. Many of these proposals also appear to be a sort of ‘grandstanding’ on narrow issues, perhaps to make a good impression on voters back home. Interesting, too, is that the last surge of amendments was on June 9th, and then there were no additional amendments for more than five months. The ONLY subsequent amendment, 160-days after House passage, was the McCain/Flake amendment, which was quickly passed by a voice vote, and with no votes against.
According to the HR 2577 webpage at Congress.gov, the bill was introduced on 5/27/2015, passed by the House of Representatives on 6/9/2015, and reported to the Senate on 6/25/2015.
The amendment applies only to the busiest U.S. commercial airports, known as the OEP-35 Airports. (this aiREFORM webpage provides a list of all OEP-35 airports, notes their operational trends, and includes links to webpages with information about each airport)
It is important to recognize that the rush to implement NextGen was not needed, as U.S. commercial airline operations have declined substantially (and fairly steadily) for most of the past 15-years. The data showing this is viewable year-by-year, for each OEP-35 airport, at this aiREFORM webpage: Total Annual Operations & Trends for FAA’s OEP-35 Airports, 1990-2014. Or, here is the data presented graphically, from an informative presentation by Katana Consulting.
We certainly owe a ‘thank you’ to Senator McCain for finally taking this action, and we hope the eventual legislation, if passed, will quickly produce noise relief at places like Phoenix, Flushing, Charlotte and Palo Alto (and, the botched NextGen implementations are also impacting Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and other communities). But, as a career elected official, Senator McCain (and other Senators) should also welcome hard questions about his actions. The facts behind this latest action beg three such questions:
- Why was this proposal not made five months ago? It was quickly approved after it was offered, so it seems plausible that many different Senators (from both parties, and from numerous states) might have offered this amendment proposal as early at last June, to potentially accelerate relief for the thousands of impacted people. The most likely Senators would be those with the largest numbers of NextGen victims, and at locations with intense media coverage and even legal actions against FAA. These Senators would include: Schumer or Gillibrand (NY), Feinstein or Boxer (CA), Warren and Markey (MA), and of course, McCain and Flake (AZ). Each of these Senators would have served their constituents well, if they pushed this proposal last June or July. Why so long without any progress? Has the evidently bipartisan failure to serve constituents become this stark? Is this further evidence that U.S. Senators today serve money, not people?
- Was the timing of this amendment proposal connected to Senate discussion on the Syrian Refugee crisis? On the same day that McCain introduced his amendment, and in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, Senators were cuing up with their positions on our national role, whether to accept or block Middle Eastern refugees. McCain was quoted in an article at theHill.com, insisting there was no connection, while also referring to his differences with the White House. This echoes a similar situation two years ago, when a rift developed within Republican ranks, on the issue of authorizing air strikes in Syria. Then, too, both McCain and Flake were on the hawk end of the spectrum, while newer Senators (and Presidential candidates) Rubio and Paul were on the dove end, questioning the U.S.’s role and use of force. It seems that a seasoned politician may well understand, when you are about to do something unpopular, doing something positive may help to diminish opposition. With this in mind, is it conceivable to think that our elected officials may appreciate agencies creating problems so that, when the timing is right, the elected official can become a quick and momentary hero?
- Is McCain cleaning up, perhaps trying to make amends for some of his past misdeeds? Back in 2012, this Senator, teaming up with Senator Harry Reid (NV), single-handedly stopped a carefully crafted proposal by the National Park Service to get air tourism noise impacts under control, at the Grand Canyon National Park. In so doing, McCain was capitulating to the profit-interests of Papillon, Maverick, and other helicopter operators, who make millions each year in these lucrative flights, while severely diminishing the quality of the experience for millions of park visitors.
So, what is REALLY driving FAA’s NextGen program? It is not safety or capacity. It is simply MONEY. As has happened time and again with FAA, they scheme up ways to sell a new program, to get Congress to pay out more money, which then benefits FAA employees as well as the industry. Contractors, manufacturers, the airlines and other so-called ‘stakeholders’ all get a piece of the pie in exchange for not opposing the wasteful congressional handout. And, in a few years, yet another round of slush-slinging will follow.
Some would call it a fraud that is generating waste as well as excess aviation noise, an irresponsible action by an unaccountable FAA that is destroying neighborhoods around the nation. It would be nice if the current Presidential candidates in both major parties would start to debate how to repair the ongoing performance failures at FAA.