EDITORIAL: While terrorists plot, the FAA parties

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While a terrorist was plotting to kill Americans over the Christmas holidays, what was the Federal Aviation Administration doing? Why, spending $5 million on a three-week-long Christmas party, of course.

A series of seminars in Atlanta officially were aimed at training managers on a new air-traffic-controller contract but degenerated into one big bash. According to ABC News, the seminars didn’t even cover half of the 100 new provisions in a contract that went into effect two months ago.

Participants apparently also were too busy partying on the taxpayer dime to learn much. Whistleblowers told ABC tales of rampant drunken debauchery, including one attendee propositioning an undercover reporter for her services as a prostitute.

The agency has a long history of misguided spending that does nothing to improve flight safety or efficiency. Since 1998, the FAA has allowed $3.5 billion in taxpayer funds intended to improve aviation safety to be used to build private jet hangars and new luxurious terminals for airports that average just three flights a day, according to USA Today.

The problem only appears to be getting worse under President Obama: Spending on airport projects the FAA classifies as low priority hit a record $507 million this year, almost five times what was spent in 1998 on such efforts.

That money could have been used for more urgent projects. Improving the hodgepodge of modern computer systems layered on top of long out-of-date technology should be the agency’s top priority. In November, the failure of a single computer system in Utah disrupted air travel nationwide for hours, the second such data-processing failure in 15 months.

The agency is spending $800 million a year on its so-called NextGen satellite-based air-traffic network, the centerpiece of its modernization efforts. However, with only a minority of aircraft nationwide even equipped to take advantage of satellite navigation, it will be years before this system can significantly improve air travel.

Though, as a part of the Department of Transportation, the FAA’s primary job is safety and managing the national air-traffic system, not security; the agency’s failure to focus on the basics is symptomatic of the broader federal approach to protecting the flying public - failing management, pork-barrel politics and outdated technology.

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