Congressional Observer: August 2001

 - May 21, 2008, 11:07 AM

As Washington pundits predicted, the change from a Republican to a Democrat majority in the Senate and the shift in leadership from Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) was not exactly the smoothest transition in congressional history. Legislative emphasis and priorities shifted from President Bush’s proposals to those favored by the Democrats, and the push for a patient’s bill of rights bill dominated Senate activities before the July 4th recess. Senate Democrats have been accused of using new committee chairmanships to slow down Bush Administration proposals on a wide range of issues–such as judicial nominees, the fairness of the death penalty, energy and so on–through a series of oversight hearings, which seems to be the sort of game politicians like to play. Lott said that Democrats are motivated by “investigating Republicans instead of legislating solutions.” The Democrats have had the majority only since June 6 and there is probably a good bit more give and take to come.

•    The House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal 2002 transportation appropriations bill that allocates $13.3 billion for the FAA. Of that amount, $6.9 billion would fund FAA operations, $5.5 billion of which is for air traffic services in fiscal 2002. The Airport and Airway Trust Fund will cover nearly $5.8 billion of the operations budget with the balance coming from the general fund of the U.S. Treasury. The proposed budget would allocate $32.9 million for regulation and certification funding (an amount that is less than a 5-percent increase over fiscal 2001 and $21 million shy of what the administration requested).

The Centennial of Flight Commission would receive $750,000 to continue its program, and $8.5 million has been allocated for the redesign of the New Jersey/New York airspace. Also apportioned was $1.3 million to continue investigating technology to provide more accurate airport and flight status information for passengers; $6 million for the formation of air-tour management plans at national parks (required under provisions of AIR-21); $2.9 billion for facilities and equipment; $3.3 billion for the Airport Improvement Program (AIP); $191 million for research, engineering and development; $75.9 million for continued development of the wide-area augmentation system (WAAS); $42.4 million for the local-area augmentation system (LAAS); $1.7 million for improving aviation weather services; and about $1 million for examining and analyzing the feasibility of reducing aircraft separation standards. Citing the recent Gulfstream III crash in Aspen, Colo., where tower controllers had not received a notam prohibiting a certain type of instrument approach to the airport at night, the committee set aside $1 million for the FAA to transfer notam services to its special- use airspace management system (SAMS). The committee also cut V-22 Osprey funding by $590 million but added funds for tiltrotor research and development. The remaining money was expected to be sufficient for the purchase of 11 tiltrotors.

The report language that accompanied the appropriations bill was highly critical of the FAA’s personnel reform activities and declared it to be a failure, citing severe levels of employee dissatisfaction. Air traffic controller payscales also came under fire. According to the panel, the average controller will be paid $135,000 in the coming year, and that equates to 93 percent of what FAA Administrator Jane Garvey is paid. Next year, more than 9,500 controllers will have salaries exceeding $100,000. The committee pointed out that the FAA limited pay increases for air-traffic managerial and supervisory employees, creating “disconcerting pay inequities within the air traffic business” and directed the FAA to report on how to resolve the disparities in pay.

•    During a hearing held by the House transportation and infrastructure aviation subcommittee, the FAA’s $11.5 billion operational evolution plan to solve air-traffic congestion problems in the U.S. came under attack. The 10-year plan packages some 50 projects and programs that are intended to increase airspace and airport capacity.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) expressed skepticism about “the FAA’s ability to deliver all of the projects outlined in the timeframes detailed within the budget. Hopefully, the FAA understands that cost overruns and schedule delays can no longer be tolerated.” Former subcommittee chairman Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) asked how this effort would differ from past failed programs and cited a General Accounting Office report on the advanced automation system program that the FAA abandoned in 1994 after spending $2.6 billion, of which he said $1.5 billion was “completely wasted.”

•    The House aviation subcommittee also held a hearing to examine why runway incursions have been increasing (431 last year compared with 292 in 1997) in spite of efforts to contain them through training, education and technology. DOT inspector general Kenneth Mead told the committee that the FAA’s director of runway safety has little authority over FAA employees working on runway safety projects and should be given ways to hold them accountable for performing properly and staying on schedule. There have been six directors of the runway safety office in the past five years.

Mead said the one major problem is that work on runway incursion technology takes place in offices over which the runway safety office has no control. He suggested that “the director should have a mechanism to provide input on individual performance appraisals and bonuses for employees responsible for reducing runway incursions.”

Various aviation groups testified that the new Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS) slated for 34 major airports by the end of next year (systems at Detroit and San Francisco have already been installed) would not prevent all collisions and near collisions.

•    S.1132, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and H.R.2387, sponsored by Rep. Jan Harman (D-Calif.), would preserve nonstop air service to and from Reagan Washington National Airport for certain communities in cases of airline bankruptcy.

•    H.R.2107, sponsored by Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.), would amend title 49, United States Code, to preempt state laws requiring a certificate of approval or other form of approval before the construction or operation of certain airport development projects.