Senate’s FAA bill offers reprieve from user fees

 - July 27, 2009, 6:43 AM

A bipartisan group of senators introduced an FAA reauthorization act last month that carries provisions to speed up implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) while retaining the current mechanisms for paying for the ATC upgrades. The Senate Commerce Committee approved the measure a week later.

The Senate bill (S.1451), the “FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act,” provides for agency funding for two years, meaning that, at least for now, general aviation will continue to contribute to the FAA through fuel taxes, rather than through a system of user fees that the Obama Administration has signaled that it wants in the near future. The White House has an ally in Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who said in a teleconference with reporters, “I still feel very strongly that general aviation has to pay [its] fair share.” Rockefeller has long backed additional user fees for general aviation, in particular business jets, and has been a leading advocate for a $25-per-leg surcharge for all turbine-powered aircraft.

The committee chairman claims that GA pays only 8 percent of the cost of operating the FAA, although two-thirds of the airplanes using the system are general aviation aircraft. He also contends that GA flights have “no inspection,” an apparent allusion to Transportation Security Administration screening.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, told reporters, “We are not making any changes to the user fees.

Although the House of Representatives passed an FAA reauthorization bill in September 2007, the Senate version languished because of a dispute over user fees for general aviation. The bill never reached the floor for a vote, and the FAA has been operating under a series of temporary funding measures since then.

Rockefeller said the FAA reauthorization bill was limited to two years so the Obama Administration has a chance to work out its own vision for the nation’s air transportation program.

The 2010 budget proposal for the FAA the White House released in May makes it obvious that President Obama wants a fundamental change in funding in FY2011 by dramatically reducing General Fund support for aviation in America. The Administration proposal for 2011 envisions $9.6 billion coming from user fees. That figure increases to $11 billion by 2014.

In contrast to the House bill (H.R.915) passed in May, which provides historic funding levels ($70 billion) for the FAA’s capital programs between Fiscal Year 2009 and FY2012, the Senate measure earmarks $17 billion for FY2010 and $17.5 billion for FY2011.

The House bill would fund the FAA and NextGen development through current sources, without additional user fees, although it includes an increase in GA fuel taxes.

The Senate bill establishes clear deadlines for the adoption of existing GPS navigation technology, including required navigation performance (RNP) and area navigation (Rnav), by mandating 100-percent coverage at the busiest 35 airports by 2014, with coverage of the entire National Airspace System (NAS) required by 2018.

It directs the FAA to accelerate planned timelines for integrating ADS-B technology into the NAS, requiring the use of ADS-B out on all aircraft by 2015 and ADS-B in on all aircraft by 2018.

In addition to other provisions, S.1451:

• Requires the FAA to develop a plan to provide runway incursion information to pilots in the cockpit, and initiate improved processes for tracking and investigating operational errors.

• Mandates that an independent study of the latest research on pilot fatigue be applied to the FAA’s required rulemaking on flight time limits and rest requirements for flight crews.

• Addresses inconsistent application of airworthiness directives by improving voluntary disclosure reporting processes to ensure adequate actions are taken in response to reports; limiting the ability of FAA inspectors to work for air carriers over which they had oversight; and conducting independent reviews of safety issues identified by employees.

• Requires enhanced safety oversight of foreign repair stations.

• Takes steps to ensure that “one level of safety” exists in commercial aircraft operations including a mandate that all carriers adopt additional safety oversight programs and by promoting cooperation among carriers to share best practices and other critical safety information.

The Senate bill authorizes $9.3 billion for FAA operations in FY10 and $9.6 billion in FY11. It includes $3.5 billion for facilities and equipment in FY10 and $3.3 billion in FY11. Of the amounts made available for facilities and equipment, $500 million per year is earmarked for a new ATC system modernization account.

S.1451 also includes $200 million for research and development in Fiscal Year 2010 and $206 million in FY11. The Airport Improvement Program would receive a total of $8.1 billion over the two years–$4 billion in FY2010 and $4.1 billion in FY2011.

A conference committee will have to reconcile any differences between the House and the Senate bills.