Congress set to align FAA reauthorization bills

 - July 28, 2008, 10:21 AM

Both the House and the Senate passed their own versions of an FAA reauthorization bill last month, so differences between the two measures–and the threat of Presidential veto–must be resolved by a House/ Senate conference committee before Congress casts its final vote.

The White House strongly opposes several provisions in the House’s Flight 100-Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act (Flight 100-CARA), not the least of which is a prohibition against any form of ATC privatization. Despite FAA Administrator Marion Blakey’s assurances to the controllers union that their functions will not be subcontracted, the Bush Administration said that if the final legislation “inappropriately” prohibits the conversion of FAA facilities or function from the federal government to the private sector, the President’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.

In a statement of Bush Administration policy, the White House indicated that it is unhappy with some other provisions in CARA, but it promised to work with Congress to correct those differences before the final compromise bill reaches Bush’s desk.

“The Administration’s tough stance leaves nothing to the imagination of those of us in aviation who fear a privately run air traffic system–not to mention the airline control of such–and the fees that would go with privatization,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer. “The Administration can protest all it wants that it has no plans to subcontract air traffic control, but the fact that they’re willing to threaten a veto of an FAA spending bill that contains so many good things for aviation over this language makes clear their real intent.”

Meanwhile, the Senate passed its own Aviation Investment and Revitalization Vision Act (AIR-V), which was amended to require that all air traffic controllers, air traffic technicians and flight service specialists be federal employees. It would prevent the FAA from outsourcing the jobs of 2,700 employees at 58 flight service stations, which is currently under study.

CARA reauthorizes FAA funding at a total of $59 billion over fiscal years 2004 to 2007, while the Senate’s AIR-V would provide a total of $43.5 billion over three years (FY 2004 to 2006). CARA (H.R.2115) was passed by an overwhelming 418-8 vote. AIR-V (S.824) was unanimously approved by a vote of 94-0.

The House’s anti-privatization amendment was proposed by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a long-time opponent of an ATC system operated by any entity other than the federal government.

The Senate amendment was introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who stated after the vote, “Your luggage is important enough to be screened by trained federal workers, but once you’re up in the sky, the Administration seems to believe that your safety should be in the hands of the lowest bidder.”

AIR-V included a provision similar to its companion legislation in the House that would provide $100 million in financial assistance to general aviation businesses harmed in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. While there were differences between the two provisions, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) noted it was the first time that the Senate has adopted any type of measure providing general aviation businesses with financial assistance.

Both bills also make improvements and reforms to the Essential Air Service and the Small Community Air Service Development programs, continuing incentives created by the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21) to encourage air service for communities that currently have no air service.

The bills also include new funding for airport security, limiting the amount of Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding that can be used. According to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, AIR-V establishes the Aviation Security Capital Fund, which is authorized with $500 million annually in security service fees, which are already collected by the TSA.

For aviation modernization, the Senate bill establishes a new Office of Aerospace and Aviation Liaison within the Transportation Department. This office will be charged with coordinating aviation and aeronautics research programs, activities, goals and priorities within the federal government. Areas of responsibility include ATC, technology transfer from government programs to private sector, noise, emissions, fuel consumption and safety.

Both bills also contain what is called a “Meigs Legacy” amendment, which allows stiff fines (as much as $10,000 a day) to be levied against any local community that closes an airport that is part of the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems without 30 days notice.

Both bills also would establish a national air traffic management system development office within the FAA, with the mission of developing a next-generation air traffic management system.