FAA Reauthorization Bill Advances in Senate

 - March 16, 2016, 12:06 PM
An FAA reauthorization bill that leaves out the controversial privatized ATC plan is moving through the Senate. (Photo: Fotolia/ferbarcala)

The U.S. Senate is making progress on a comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill, but Congress still had to enact a short-term extension of FAA’s authorization after a controversial proposal to create a user-funded, not-for-profit air traffic control organization stalled the House bill.

Facing a March 31 deadline for the expiration of the FAA’s authorization, the House and Senate each passed separate measures to extend the agency’s operating authority until July 15. At press time the House was working to finish up differences in the measures. The extension is the second such stop-gap measure since the previous reauthorization bill expired on September 30, but necessary as the House and Senate work to reach a compromise on the comprehensive bill.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee adopted its version of a comprehensive six-year reauthorization bill in February, but that measure, H.R.4441, the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (AAIR), ran into staunch resistance for its ATC privatization measure. With opposition from House Democrats, some Republicans and Appropriations leaders on both side of the aisle, House leadership halted further action and instead pushed for the short-term extension.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee, which had been watching the House bill closely, decided to move ahead with its own version. On March 16 the Senate committee approved by voice vote its comprehensive reauthorization bill, which touches on many of the themes of the House version but omits the controversial ATC proposal.

The Senate bill, S.2658, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, would cover the FAA’s authorization only through the end of Fiscal Year 2017–unlike the six-year authorization proposed by the House–but contains a number of key provisions of interest to general aviation, including certification reforms, more airports funding, requirements for small tower marking, protections for the unleaded aviation fuel transition and the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 with third-class medical reform. It also addresses safety and privacy issues surrounding unmanned aircraft systems and calls for measures to mitigate risk and improve NextGen transition management.

The committee approved 57 amendments to the bill, covering everything from continuation of the program that blocks real-time release of business aircraft flight tracking information, to more transparency in unmanned aircraft systems surveillance activities and an aircraft materials center of excellence.

In introducing S.2658, Senate Commerce Committee ranking Democrat Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said, “This is a good starting place for both parties to come together and get something passed.”

GA Support

The Senate bill captured wide support from the general aviation community, which has strongly opposed efforts to privatize ATC. “This bill takes the right approach to FAA reauthorization and aviation system modernization,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. “Equally important, it retains a focus on the reality that the nation’s airports and airspace operate in the public interest, and should serve the public, including all aviation stakeholders, as well as all citizens and communities.”

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association praised the bill’s focus on certification reform, with president and CEO Pete Bunce saying, “These reforms are ready to go and give the FAA strong legislative direction so that manufacturers will be better able to get innovative, safety-enhancing technologies into their customers’ hands.” The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association was pleased by the third-class medical reform and also that the Senate is taking steps to forward a longer-term bill.

“We strongly support the legislation’s approach to making the FAA and its programs more effective and hope the full Senate will take up and approve this legislation in April,” added National Air Transportation Association president and CEO Tom Hendricks.

The short reauthorization period in the Senate bill, however, means reauthorization debate would renew next year, opening the door for continued negotiations on the privatization proposal that was the cornerstone of the plan forwarded by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).

Shuster praised the release of the bill and noted successes he had in working with his Senate counterparts in the past. “I look forward to continuing our work and building upon our previous successes by completing an FAA bill that provides critical reforms for the FAA and the nation’s aviation system.”

While the Senate bill leaves out ATC privatization, Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) has not shut the door on the ATC privatization proposal, saying “There is an innovative approach [in the House], and we’ll see how that comes out in terms of the progress over there.”

Nelson, however, was more skeptical, noting “continuing chatter” from the House that “somehow there will be a change of hearts and minds in supporting privatization.” But Nelson added he did not think that would happen.

The Senate committee, he said, “started with the premise that we would work together and focus on areas of agreement and refrain from the controversial proposals such as the plan for privatizing air traffic control that has got the House product all balled up.”

The senators did agree that action must be taken to speed NextGen. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) urged the committee to address issues that have plagued NextGen. “We have a crisis with air traffic control in this country in terms of how far behind we are.” She said she is unclear whether proposals such as ATC privatization is “the right idea,” but said something must be done on the ATC front. “We are ignoring a serious issue in air traffic,” she said.

Thune agreed, noting that the Senate bill requires the implementation of many recommendations related to NextGen from government watchdogs such as the Government Accountability Office and Transportation Department Office of Inspector General.

The Senate bill goes to the full Senate floor next for consideration. The Senate Finance Committee must also approve the excise taxes portion of reauthorization.