August 15, 2013

Rahall Addresses 11th Annual West Virginia Aviation Conference

Remarks of U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, II
Ranking Member
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
11th Annual West Virginia Aviation Conference
August 11, 2013

Thank you for your kind introduction. I am thrilled to be here to help kick off the 11th Annual West Virginia Aviation Conference. 

It is a pleasure to be surrounded by so many aviation aficionados and industry experts devoted to ensuring a safe and reliable aviation system here in West Virginia.  It is because of people like you, that for over 80 years, aviation has played a vital role in our great State.

As you know, after a very long road, a road that included 23 short-term extensions, Congress finally cleared for takeoff a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration in February 2012. 

This law sets funding levels and policy priorities through fiscal year 2015.  It charts a course for the development of West Virginia airports through 2015 and reauthorizes the Essential Air Service program, which is critical to our rural communities.    

Unfortunately, the fact alone that we finally got this legislation off the runway and in the air and outlined important programs and priorities, does not guarantee that these programs will be fully funded. 

As Congress continues to deal with tight budget numbers, we will continue to have challenges in securing adequate funding in many areas including on aviation programs and infrastructure spending. 

I would like to speak a little about these challenges with you, and why we must continue to work together to protect the aviation industry to ensure it remains a vital economic engine across the country, and especially in West Virginia.  We are going to need to fight for funding to ensure that the industry is vibrant, healthy and safe. 

As many of you are aware, we struggled earlier in the year as we saw the first impacts of sequestration on the FAA budget. 

When the FAA first announced that the sequester would force it to furlough air-traffic controllers and close air traffic control towers, many were skeptical, and accused the FAA of yelling that the “sky was falling.”  But when the furloughs came, we all saw first-hand the delays and the gridlock that occurred throughout the system. 

ATC tower closures were threatened at three of West Virginia’s seven towers in Wheeling, Parkersburg and Lewisburg. In addition, ATC services at Tri-State Airport in Huntington were scheduled to be cut, including the elimination of midnight shifts, as well as those midnight shifts at Yeager Airport in Charleston.

With my support, congress quickly passed the “Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013” which allowed the FAA to take $253 million out of Airport Improvement Program capital grants so that controllers would not be furloughed and towers not be closed. 

But by doing so, we robbed Peter to pay Paul - we temporarily ended the furloughs and the delays at the expense of investing in infrastructure and creating jobs. 

The FAA estimates that this one-time transfer of funds will impact 170 airport projects, most of them associated with runway and taxiway construction.  

You don’t need to be a pilot to know that those are two pretty important components of an airport.  Some projects planned to start in fiscal year 2013 were deferred and some projects started in prior years may take longer to complete.  

Moreover, even after the Reducing Flight Delays Act was enacted, the FAA still had to reduce its overall budget by $637 million, which diminishes its ability to efficiently manage the aviation system.  The agency is still operating under a hiring freeze, and key programs have been suspended or delayed.

So that’s what we are looking at if we even get a transportation appropriations bill at a level envisioned by House Republicans this year.  Further, if we do not act to address the turbulence of a second round of sequestration this fall, the captain is going to tell us to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for a bumpy ride. 

The next round of sequestration will force the FAA to cut close to a billion dollars in fiscal year 2014, which starts in October.  The FAA has warned that the travel disruptions that passengers experienced last spring will occur again, only they will be potentially even more severe the second time around.  The fate of our contract towers and towers in rural areas will again be called into question.

The challenges posed by sequestration are emblematic of so many issues that plague Congress today. 

We know that our airports confer broad economic benefits to the communities and residents they serve, whether they are an international hub handling hundreds of flights in a day or they are a small municipal airfield in a rural setting.  They are vital components in our transportation network that links our communities to one another and to the world.  They are dot the landscape in both red states and blue.

What we must do is come together and find common ground, or common airspace as the case may be, and peel back the most harmful aspects of these severe budget cuts.  That’s how we solved problems for most of my tenure in Congress. 

The most contentious issues of the day didn’t constantly drive us to the brink; they drove us to the bargaining table.  That tried and true approach of working across the aisle to solve a problem that affects residents of every state is one that we must embrace again. 

While preventing the sequester from again harming the traveling public and our airports will occupy our time on the immediate horizon, I believe Congress must stay focused on the need to make a strong Federal investment in our aviation system. 

As everyone here knows, airports around the Nation are in urgent need of investment, and Federal infrastructure investment creates jobs at a time when millions are out of work across the country. 

We know firsthand in West Virginia, the economic benefits that accompany our airports and that they function as irreplaceable links in our transportation network.  I hope that you will help me continue to make that message crystal clear to all our elected representatives and throughout our communities.

Thank you again for inviting me to be here with you all today and for all that do to keep West Virginia’s skies safe and well traveled.  I’d be happy to stick around for a few questions.