Congress looking to pass FAA reauthorization
City and county officials are urging the U.S. Congress to eliminate a provision in an upcoming bill that would require the local airport to employ up to 15 additional safety personnel. Officials say the extra personnel would cause a serious budgeting dilemma and would not necessarily provide additional safety at the Gunnison/Crested Butte regional airport.
Last month, the county commissioners, and municipal councils from Gunnison, Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, sent letters to U.S. Senator Ken Salazar requesting that a certain provision in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill be removed.
Local officials are taking issue with a request to Congress by the International Association of Fire Fighters that would mandate additional firefighting personnel at the airport. If granted, the request would force airports to meet standards set by the National Fire Protection Association.
Outside of that provision and other details in the bill, airport manager John DeVore says the main benefit and purpose of the reauthorization is to continue to provide airports with capital financing for big projects.
DeVore says the Gunnison/Crested Butte Regional Airport gets $1 million yearly in entitlements for capital expenses and has access to FAA discretionary funds for certain projects. The local airport received $10 million in FAA discretionary funding to repave the runway in 2004, and $4.3 million to repave the taxiway last summer. “It’s a major capital funding appropriator for airports,” DeVore says of the FAA authorization.
Other lawmakers would like to see the bill include revenue-building tactics such as landing fees and aviation fuel taxes that could help the FAA fund improvements to the nation’s air traffic control infrastructure.
What has local officials up in arms is the potential that the bill will mandate additional fire safety personnel at the local airport. Airport firefighters are called Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting personnel (ARFF) and must receive special certification and training.
According to the Gunnison County Commissioners’ letter to Salazar, “If the (National Fire Protection Administrations) standards are written into the reauthorization bill, our airport will be required to have nine certified ARFF personnel on duty per shift, which will necessitate a staffing increase of up to 15 ARFF personnel and additional equipment purchases. Effectively, this requirement would cost our airport… in excess of $1,527,500 for the first year and $850,000 in reoccurring annual costs.”
County commissioner Jim Starr says, “My understanding is the other provisions (in the bill) don’t affect us or they’re ones we could handle… The main concern we have is the significantly enhanced requirements for ARFF personnel. The numbers they’re talking about in the bill currently would be really cost-prohibitive at the county’s airport.”
DeVore says the airport’s operations are supported through airline rates and user charges rather than local taxes. DeVore says if the additional personnel were mandated, the airport would likely have to charge airlines and travelers more for service, which could eventually lead to a loss of airline service into Gunnison, since airlines are turned away by high prices. If the bill is passed with the provision and the airport does not comply with the new standards, the entire operation could be shut down DeVore says.
DeVore says the additional firefighting personnel won’t necessarily provide additional safety, because of a mutual aid agreement between the airport and the Gunnison Fire Department. He says Gunnison firefighters join with the airport firefighters depending on the level of need. Even at low levels of alert, DeVore says Gunnison firefighters are staged to assist the airport personnel in an emergency situation.
Even nationally, DeVore says, safety is a top priority at airports. “For the last 15 years commercial air service has had a remarkable safety record,” he says.
The FAA reauthorization bill has been hotly debated during previous legislative sessions. The FAA sent a reauthorization proposal to Congress in May 2007 and both the House and Senate have released their own versions of the bill, HB 2881 and SB 1300, respectively. The Senate bill was killed earlier this spring, while the House version of the bill is stalled in the Senate. Congress has approved an extension of the current FAA authorization until November 16, and has decided to reconsider the FAA reauthorization bill following this year’s general election.
DeVore says he believes change is in the works and the next issue of the bill won’t call for measures as drastic as the original. DeVore says, “The debate is not over. They’ll just take it up after the election.”