FAA Legislation to Take Off Next Year

Posted July 23, 2008 at 4:09pm

Ambitious efforts to overhaul the nation’s air traffic control system and alleviate congestion in the skies will confront the next Congress and hinge on how lawmakers pay for those changes.

House and Senate lawmakers have proposed different ideas for paying for the upgrades, and neither chamber has been willing to back the other’s plan as part of broader Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization legislation.

As a result, the matter will carry over to the 111th Congress and new administration.

In May, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved its FAA reauthorization bill (S. 1300), which includes a $25-per-flight surcharge to upgrade air traffic control operations. The surcharge is estimated to raise $400 million annually.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), exempts aircraft used for recreational purposes, and those that use piston-driven engines or provide air ambulance services. The Senate bill would authorize nearly $1.2 billion for FAA modernization over a four-year period.

Senate debate of the FAA bill was halted later that month after a cloture motion failed.

Still, a deal was reached between Rockefeller and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) on how to fund the FAA’s upgrade.

Under the compromise, Rockefeller agreed to drop the $25-per-flight surcharge and replaced it with an increase in the general aviation jet fuel tax from the current 21.8 cents per gallon to 36 cents per gallon, as proposed by the Senate Finance Committee bill.

This provision is intended to provide about $240 million per year for the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

But the agreement faltered during floor debate over amendments.

Party fighting intensified off the floor over whether unrelated amendments would be allowed. They included tax and energy proposals and a plan to boost highway construction spending.

Rockefeller blasted Baucus for attaching unrelated items to the measure such as money for the Highway Trust Fund.

The House passed its FAA reauthorization bill last September, proposing a multiyear blueprint for modernizing the air traffic control system as well as steps to address concerns about commercial aviation, FAA safety oversight, delays and congestion, and service complaints.

The measure authorizes FAA operations through 2012 at $67 billion. Of that, $15.8 billion is designated for the Airport Improvement Program and nearly $13 billion for FAA facilities and equipment.

The House bill also contains a provision to raise the cap on passenger facility charges that airports levy on airline tickets to pay for capital improvements, from $4.50 to $7 per leg of a trip.

The additional fees are expected to generate $1.1 billion for airport projects annually.

The legislation contains a financing measure that would raise taxes on the general aviation fuel tax from 21.8 cents per gallon to 35.9 cents per gallon, while commercial aviation fuel taxes would rise from 19.3 cents per gallon to 24.1 cents per gallon. The additional money would go toward air traffic control modernization.

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) has urged the Senate to pass the House bill rather than continuing to fight over competing bills from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation and Finance committees.

Aviation lobbyists appear resigned to another extension of the status quo, possibly well into 2009. The FAA has been operating over the past year largely on a string of short-term extensions, giving lawmakers time to work out a stalemate over a way to fund aviation improvements.

The latest extension, enacted in June, reauthorized the FAA for another three months, through September 2008, the end of the fiscal year.

“In a lot of ways we’re stuck,” said Jeff Munk, a lobbyist with Hogan & Hartson.

Munk said he hoped next year would provide the impetus needed to get an FAA bill through Congress.

“No one really knows if that’s enough money or if this system is going to be able to get together in the time frame we need it, and we need it pretty bad right now,” he said.

Earlier this year, the White House threatened to veto the four-year authorization bill because it “excludes the critical reforms proposed by the administration but also includes provisions that would further exacerbate an untenable status quo.”

Among the issues the administration cited were labor provisions, rules for repair stations, oil spill liability, authority over air congestion management, funding mechanisms, and what the administration considers unnecessarily burdensome safety mandates.