Likely House, Senate Clash Over FAA Bill

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Adrian Schofield

The unveiling of the U.S. Senate's FAA reauthorization bill marks a crucial step in resolving policy and funding questions that have been hanging over the aviation industry for years. But the bill also sets up battles with House lawmakers that could once again bog down the reauthorization effort.

While these disagreements are not as severe as in prior rounds of the reauthorization debate, they will not be settled without major concessions. And such compromises have proved elusive in recent years--meaning the FAA has operated under temporary extensions since its last authorization expired in 2007. This lack of certainty has frustrated industry and limited the agency's ability to plan ahead.

The Senate FAA bill is a bipartisan effort authored by Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), aviation subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), and ranking committee Republicans. The House passed its own version in May, and House lawmakers have frequently chided the Senate for lagging behind. The Obama administration is still working on its own reauthorization proposal.

Reauthorization bills contain policy instructions and recommend long-term funding levels. While FAA is typically reauthorized for a four-year period, the House bill covers three years and the Senate only two. Rockefeller said the two-year approach will give the White House "a chance to work out its own aviation program," and will also give the aviation industry some funding certainty in the meantime.

The Senate proposes $17 billion for FAA in Fiscal 2010, and $17.5 billion in Fiscal 2011. The 2010 amount is slightly larger than the administration's budget request of about $16 billion for that year. The operations budget line is the same, but capital spending and airport grant lines are set at higher levels than the White House request, "to ensure modernization needs are met."

Notably, the Senate bill does not contain any user-fee language, even though Rockefeller pushed for a nominal per-flight fee during the reauthorization debate last year. He made it clear last week that he "still feels strongly" that more of the air traffic control (ATC) cost should be spread to general aviation. The House bill also contains no user-fee provision, but the Obama administration has signaled it wants to introduce such a fee from Fiscal 2011 onward.

The Senate has not increased airport passenger facility charges (PFCs) in its reauthorization bill, in contrast to House lawmakers who bumped up the cap on this ticket tax to $7 from $4.50 per passenger. Instead, the Senate bill would introduce a program at six airports where the PFC cap can be removed if an airport finds a way to charge passengers directly instead of via airline tickets.

Another potential clash point between the House and Senate is the airline alliance issue. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, insisted on a clause in the House bill that would sunset all alliances, forcing airlines to reapply for approval after a reexamination of the criteria. The Senate bill has no such alliance language, but Oberstar is passionate about the topic and will not back down easily. This will be "one of a number of matters" that will have to be worked out in conference, according to Rockefeller.

The Senate bill does require U.S. inspections of foreign repair stations, a provision in the House bill that has prompted strong opposition from the European Union. However, the Senate bill's authors say they "don't expect we're going to have a problem with Europe" over the bill, and suggested they will exclude regions like this from the inspection requirement. This could indeed make it more palatable to the Europeans than the House version.

On the modernization front, the Senate bill calls for acceleration of various NextGen technologies, including automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B). ADS-B "out" (broadcast) capability would be required on all aircraft by 2015; ADS-B "in" (receiving) capability, by 2018. This would mark a change from the FAA's proposed deadline of 2020 for ADS-B equipage.

The bill also sets milestones for completing work on satellite navigation procedures--known as RNP and RNAV--at the top 35 airports by 2014, and throughout the country by 2018. The Senate proposes a new position of chief NextGen officer at the FAA, as well as creation of an ATC modernization oversight board.

One of the most controversial clauses--backed by passenger rights groups--is a "hard requirement" for passengers to be allowed to deplane for delays of three hours or more. The Air Transport Assn. (ATA) is opposed to this provision, which it says will be costly to airlines and will create more problems than solutions for passengers. For example, deplaning passengers would often turn delays into cancellations.

The accelerated ADS-B equipage deadline also worries airlines. ATA states that this is an "unfunded mandate" that would impose substantial cost for carriers without a demonstrated timeline of benefits.

ATA is still assessing its overall position on the Senate bill, but generally prefers it to the House version. The airline group is pleased the House PFC increase was rejected in the Senate bill, along with Oberstar's airline alliance review.

Airport groups, meanwhile, are on the opposite side of the debate about PFC increases. While the airport industry had pushed for the PFC boost, it was not a surprise that it did not make the cut in the Senate legislation, says Airports Council International-North America President Greg Principato. ACI believes the PFC cap should be at least $7.50, and should in future be indexed to inflation. There has been no PFC increase since 2000, Principato notes.

ACI does not oppose the PFC pilot program. However, it is far more important to the group that the PFC increase goes through. The American Assn. of Airport Executives has also been calling for a hike in PFCs, and both groups have been opposing a clause in the House bill that would impose new airport firefighting standards they say are overly burdensome. This provision was left out of the Senate bill.

Yet another major difference between the House and Senate legislation concerns a labor clause aimed specifically at FedEx. The House bill--but not the Senate version--would make it easier for certain FedEx workers to unionize. FedEx has lobbied against the provision, while rival UPS has supported it.

Photo credit: Benet Wilson

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