As soon as their summer vacation was officially over in early September, key House members resumed screaming for the secretary of transportation's head on a plate. Federico Pena is allowing air traffic control centers around the country to drift into technological obscurity, House Republicans say. Planes are running into each other on the ground and falling out of the sky, all

because the DOT's Federal Aviation Administration is slow, arrogant, inefficient and hopelessly entangled in bureaucratic red tape.

Yet even as they talk about the necessity of FAA reform and modernizing the country's air traffic control system, the Republican Congress' plans to balance the federal budget by 2002 could gut the FAA budget by almost 20 percent, according to Linda Hall Daschle, the FAA's deputy administrator.The decline would leave the FAA with a budget of $7 billion by 2002, the lowest it has been since 1990, Ms. Daschle said (the FAA's fiscal 1995 budget is $9 billion). The cuts would be especially difficult to manage in light of the $600 million drop, after adjusting for inflation, in the FAA's budget over the past two fiscal years, she said.

No one knows how the fiscal 1996 budget process will shake out. But there's no disputing that the FAA is seeing a 4 percent annual increase in the number of air travelers, and a 6 percent increase in the number of air traffic control operations needed to accommodate the rise. And there's no disputing that the 1960s technology in the FAA's air traffic centers isn't getting any younger.

The solution, say the Republicans - and a few Democrats, such as Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. - is to take the FAA away from the DOT and allow it to stand on its own, where it will flourish free of the oppressive yoke of politically motivated transportation secretaries and their minions.

An independent FAA? Creating a whole new bureaucracy in these days of government downsizing runs counterclockwise to the Republican's agenda, but oh well. It's worth a try.

It's worth a try, but not because Mr. Pena deserves to lose the agency. The FAA's woes started way before he came aboard. It's worth a try because something's got to be done to whip the U.S. air traffic control system into shape before 2000, or we're going to have a big problem on our hands.

Since January, there have been more than a dozen major power interruptions at FAA Air Route Traffic Control Centers across the country (the Houston ARTCC

went down for almost 26 hours on Jan. 19). And ARTCC power failures are only the tip of the iceberg. The National Transportation Safety Board is going bonkers investigating all the aviation mishaps developing because much-need FAA equipment, such as airport surface detection radar, is not up and running.

Since he was appointed in 1993, FAA Administrator David Hinson has worked feverishly to get many of the agency's most intractable technology programs out of the lab and into the field. It's finally happening because the former Douglas Aircraft Co. executive never lost the results-oriented drive that makes the corporate world tick. He hasn't been afraid to invite certain FAA nonperformers to enjoy the benefits of early retirement. And, as a former naval aviator with over 8,000 hours in 70 types of aircraft, Mr. Hinson understands as well as any pilot alive the reasons the FAA needs to come up to speed, fast.

But the efforts of Mr. Hinson and his staff, however heroic, aren't good enough to cure what ails the FAA. The agency is still utterly hamstrung by idiotic federal procurement and personnel regulations.

Fortunately, neither the Clinton administration nor Congress is blind. Both sides agree that action must be taken to reform the FAA. Unfortunately, there are now two competing bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, that will delay the imperative for Congress to get its act together and move on reform.

In addition to creating an independent FAA, the House reform bill proposes to solve the agency's financial straits by taking the Aviation Trust Fund off budget. The trust fund debate has gone on for years. Right now, the fund is used to offset the federal deficit. The aviation industry argues, with some merit, that the money should be used for aviation. But even if all of the fund is plowed back into aviation infrastructure improvements, it still won't be enough to make up for the FAA's budgetary shortfalls for managing air traffic control.

To compensate for cuts in the agency's budget, Senate aviation leaders introduced a bill in September that would require the FAA to substitute dedicated user fees in place of aviation excise taxes. The agency could charge fees for the security it provides, its certifications, safety inspections, overflights and air traffic control user fees.

The general aviation community, which does not pay for air traffic control, is preparing to go nuclear if the Senate proposal is adopted (commercial airlines are saying "it's about time."). The lobbying organizations that represent private pilots dish out major Political Action Committee money on the Hill, and that PAC money means a lot to cash-strapped congressmen up for re-election. Let us devoutly hope the sensible user-fee idea doesn't get shot down by the Piper Cub folks.

Under the Senate bill, the FAA would remain part of the DOT, although the agency would have much more autonomy than it now enjoys. Mr. Pena not only likes the Senate legislation, in August he detailed several of his top officials, including Ms. Daschle, to help write it.

On the other hand, Mr. Pena has threatened to ask Mr. Clinton to veto the House bill if it gets to his desk.

Debate over the reform approaches will be lively. I would bet that in the end, what we'll see signed into law is a watered-down version of the Senate bill that will somehow guarantee that general aviation is, if not exempt from ATC fees, charged less than the airlines. Congress also will make sure that it

keeps as much, if not more, control and oversight over the FAA's business as it currently enjoys.

Hoping in the meantime to grease the creaky machinery that runs the FAA, the Senate has included provisions to streamline some of the agency's procurement and personnel regulations in its fiscal 1996 funding bill.