US Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta today endorsed calls for a “thoughtful conversation” about how the agency is funded and which services it should provide.

A clearly agitated Huerta, who described 2013 as “a hell of a year”, acknowledged previous such discussions have been difficult, but need to be revisited as budgetary sequester and Congressional gridlock create turmoil within his agency’s finances.

“I think we need to ask ourselves and to ask you, our stakeholders, whether we really want to and need to – need to do everything the way we’ve always done it,” says Huerta, speaking to a lunch meeting of the Aero Club of Washington DC.

In the last three years, the FAA has endured three furloughs of thousands of employees, a reauthorization bill that was passed only after 23 extensions and a budgetary sequester that has slashed billions of dollars from the agency’s budget over the next 10 years.

The sequester forces the FAA to choose between reducing a $5 billion backlog of deferred maintenance or investing in the $1.8 billion NextGen air traffic system.

“We can’t keep doing minimal across the board maintenance,” Huerta says.

“We’re going to have to have a thoughtful conversation about what the FAA continues doing, what we might be able to stop doing and what we might be able to do differently,” he says.

Huerta’s remarks echo a wave of recent calls by aviation stakeholders to fundamentally reform the agency’s funding process.

The calls began last February by the FAA’s management advisory council, which sent a letter to Congress warning about the affects of political gridlock and the need to “create a sustainable financial future” for the agency.

In June, National Air Traffic Control Association (NATCA) president Paul Rinaldi called the sequester issue a “game-changer”, and said that the agency’s funding mechanism should be reviewed.

The FAA’s sprawling air traffic management system is funded primarily by the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which levies taxes and fees on users of the national airspace.

Last year, the fund provided $10.9 billion of the FAA’s $15.3 billion budget, but the FAA needs more to maintain the current system at the same time as it develops the satellite-based NextGen programme.

“We’re increasingly being asked to do more with less,” Huerta says. “We have an aviation trust fund, but this trust fund only covers about two-thirds of our budget.”

The conversation Huerta is seeking will likely involve thorny topics, such as proposals to privatize the air traffic control system or raising user fees across the board or upon specific groups.

So far, no consensus has developed among the stakeholders on a clear solution, despite widespread agreement on the need to modernize the air traffic system. NATCA’s Rinaldi has stopped short of endorsing a privatized model, but has raised the issue as part of the discussion that needs to occur about the agency’s funding structure.

Other groups, such as the NBAA, have resisted calls for privatization, or imposing more fees on operators of private aircraft. But the Airlines for America lobbying group has called for lowering fees and taxes upon airlines.

“We need to look at the big picture,” Huerta says. “We have to take hold of the reins and we have to take charge.”