Congress takes action on long-term FAA funding

 - February 27, 2011, 5:30 AM

Making good on promises of quick action on long-delayed FAA authorization, the Senate passed its "FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act" on February 17, with the House Transportation Committee approved is version of FAA reauthorization legislation a day earlier. The bill must now go to the House for a full vote. President Obama, meanwhile, released a Fiscal Year 2012 budget that avoided user fees, provided funding to advance NextGen modernization and set aside money for general aviation airports.

The House's FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011 (H.R. 658) was introduced by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, and other members on February 11. "This bill saves $4 billion, requiring the FAA to find significant cost savings without negatively impacting safety," Mica said. The saving is over the four-year life of the bill.

At the other end of the U.S. Capitol, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) touted economic benefits of his FAA bill when he introduced the Senate's FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act (S. 223) in late January.

"Our aviation system is fundamental to our communities and our nationπs long-term economic growth," Rockefeller said. "I am committed to getting this bill to the Presidentπs desk this year."

Crucial Funding Preserved for Small Airports

NBAA said that while Obamaπs FY2012 budget decreases some Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding, it preserves crucial funding for small and midsize public-use airports. And by setting aside $1.1 billion for NextGen–an increase of $347 million over 2010 funding levels–the President's budget also shows a commitment to air transportation system modernization.

AOPA agreed that while the White House budget does reduce overall AIP funding from $3.5 billion to $2.4 billion, it specifies that the cuts are to come from large- and medium-hub airports, preserving money for smaller commercial and general aviation airports that do not have alternative means of raising outside capital.

S. 223 is nearly identical to a bill that passed the Senate last year, 93-0. The legislation would establish clear deadlines for the adoption of existing NextGen navigation and surveillance technology. For example, the bill requires the development of required navigation performance (RNP) and area navigation (Rnav) procedures at the 35 busiest airports by 2014 and for the entire National Airspace System (NAS) by 2018.

It also directs the FAA to accelerate planned timelines for integrating ADS-B technology into the NAS and create an "air traffic modernization oversight board" to provide better monitoring of the FAA's modernization programs. And it would establish a "chief NextGen officer" position at the FAA to oversee implementation of all NextGen programs, and provide greater accountability over the modernization process.

While the Senate reauthorization is for a two-year period, the House version covers Fiscal Years 2011 to 2014, with an overall funding level of $59.7 billion. Overall funding levels are set at the FY2008 appropriations levels for the remainder of FY2011 and beginning in full in FY2012.

For NextGen, the House bill streamlines processes and provides funding for priority NextGen ATC modernization projects planned in the next four years. It sets deadlines and metrics for better measurement of NextGen progress and to ensure more effective cost management.

The bill allows for expansion of the contract tower program, which enables airports to use privately operated control towers under FAA contract, regulation and supervision. According to the T&I committee, the program could save approximately $400 million over four years. It also sets up a process for consolidation of aging, obsolete and unnecessary FAA facilities, which the committee says will also result in significant savings.