An accountant's view of the FAA's proposed fiscal 2015 budget would note a sizable drop in the agency's highest-profile initiative and a slight reduction in overall spending. A Washington insider would see a familiar, and so far fruitless, effort to combine the practical and the practically impossible.

The FAA's $15.4 billion budget request cuts 7.3% from 2014's NextGen funding levels. This reflects the agency's response to calls for more near-term results in the multibillion-dollar effort to shift the National Airspace System (NAS) from ground- to satellite-based navigation. It also underscores the reality of a tightening overall budget situation—something had to go.

The FAA's budget strikes “an appropriate balance between what we need to continue operating, and maintaining the very strong commitment to modernizing the system,” Administrator Michael Huerta said on the sidelines of the 2014 ATM World Congress in Madrid.

The agency's budget has four parts: facilities and equipment; research, engineering and development; operations; and the airport grants program, which allocates airport and airway trust fund money for airport infrastructure projects. NextGen line items are grouped into the first three. The fiscal 2015 budget zeros out 14 NextGen-specific line items funded in fiscal 2014 and adds 10 new ones. Of 31 NextGen line items funded in fiscal 2014, the FAA plans to reduce or eliminate 15. The budget also includes $186 million earmarked for NextGen from the Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative—$56 billion in funds allocated across agencies for job creation and technology development.

Budget reprogramming is part of the FAA's streamlined focus to deliver more value sooner—something Congress called for in its 2012 bill that authorizes FAA funding levels through fiscal 2015. At a House of Representatives aviation subcommittee hearing last month, FAA Chief NextGen Officer Michael Whitaker listed performance-based navigation, airport surface data, and enabling simultaneous instrument approaches on closely spaced parallel runways as the top NextGen-related priorities.

The path leads to where the NextGen advisory committee (NAC), a 28-member group of government and aviation system users who provide policy input, has been urging the FAA to go. The NAC has developed a two-tiered list of NextGen-related priorities, emphasizing near-term benefits that the FAA is reviewing to help craft a strategy.

As part of its practical approach, the FAA trims funds for NextGen programs that lack near-term benefit potential in the “pre-implementation” stage.

The budget earmarks $1.8 billion in Operations funds for the agency's other major initiative: maintaining legacy systems as NextGen is phased in. FAA also would receive $370 million as part of a NAS “sustainment strategy” to help put a dent in the multibillion-dollar maintenance funding needed for existing air traffic control infrastructure.

The FAA is seeking the near impossible—more funding from user fees. And it again proposes to trim the Airport Improvement Program grant pot to $2.9 billion from $3.4 billion by eliminating guaranteed funds for large hubs. The cut equals the difference between the FAA's fiscal 2014 spending and the fiscal 2015 pitch. In exchange, airports could boost passenger facility charges (PFC) to $8. Capped at $4.50 since 2000, this rise would, in theory, replace the revenue removed from the grant program.

The FAA has tried this for years, but Congress, which must tackle the PFC increase outside of FAA's existing funding authorization if it is to get done for fiscal 2015, has deferred to what is already on the table. If that holds true again—and chances are it will—the airport grant pool would hold at fiscal 2015's $3.4 billion authorized level.

While airports will never publicly back grant cuts, they laud a PFC boost—preferably to $8.50—to cover construction cost inflation since 2000.

The most likely time for such a change is a reauthorization battle. With FAA's authorization (but not its appropriations, or ability to spend money determined by the annual budget process) set through fiscal 2015, realists do not expect grant cuts or a PFC boost before fiscal 2016, if at all.

The administration's budget also renews its call for a $100-per-flight fee for commercial and business aviation operations to help fund the NAS. Like the attempted airport grant cuts and PFC increase, however, Congress has repeatedly killed similar efforts, and surely will again this time.

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST to see NextGen Program 2013-15 budgets by line item, or go to AviationWeek.com/nextgenbudget