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Transportation secretary hints at aid for airlines

Written by editor

WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday he thinks the Obama administration will seek financial aid for airlines to pay for equipment onboard planes that will be needed to move

WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday he thinks the Obama administration will seek financial aid for airlines to pay for equipment onboard planes that will be needed to move to a satellite-based air traffic control system.

LaHood, speaking at a luncheon of the Aero Club of Washington, said he expects the White House to “rally some dollars” in response to a request from airline industry officials who met with the administration’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers.

“I could tell from just talking to Larry today that those of you who met with Larry Summers really made an impact on him,” LaHood told the audience of 700, which included many airline industry officials.

“I believe you are going to see some movement here on the part of the administration, on the part of Larry Summers and certainly from our point of view, to see if we can really rally some dollars and get some of these dollars that are necessary to get us to NextGen,” he said.

NextGen is the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to move from today’s radar-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based system using GPS technology. The aim of new system to make aviation more efficient, cutting travel times and thereby reducing fuel use and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

FAA plans to spend upward of $20 billion to put the new system in place, which could take a decade. The airline industry, which will have to equip cockpits with GPS technology, is expected to spend billions more.

The industry unsuccessfully sought $4 billion from the administration in the economic stimulus plan approved by Congress earlier this year.

The meeting with Summers took place Wednesday and included James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, which represents most large airlines, and officials from United and Southwest airlines, said an industry official who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

NextGen will be FAA’s top priority in the Obama administration, LaHood said.

LaHood announced that he has tapped Jane Garvey, who was FAA administrator during the Clinton administration and the first year of the Bush administration, to oversee negotiations aimed at resolving a bitter dispute between the agency and its air traffic controllers.

Garvey’s successor, Marion Blakey, imposed work and pay rules on controllers after failing to reach an contract agreement with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in 2006. The union has been lobbying President Barack Obama since early in last year’s presidential campaign to return to contract negotiations.

“One of my highest priorities in coming to DOT is to resolve this issue,” LaHood said. He said he has had several discussions with NATCA President Patrick Forrey.

NATCA officials have long complained that working conditions and pay are causing large numbers of controllers to retire. They say FAA is jeopardizing safety by trying to make up for the loss of experienced controllers by hiring inexperienced trainees.

Forrey praised Obama for resuming negotiations.

“As the president made clear, a resolution to the dispute is critical to stabilizing the controller workforce, restoring a collaborative working relationship between controllers and the FAA and successfully installing the Next Generation Air Transportation System needed to spur economic development and increase the safety, efficiency and effectiveness of air travel,” he said in a statement.