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Congress Could Get First FAA Bill in Years

Sunday, April 03, 2011 - 11:00 AM

(Washington, DC -- Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) The House has passed a four-year Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill 223 to 196, setting up talks with the Senate that could lead to the first aviation policy renewal in years.

But those talks could get complicated by perennial political issues, as Republicans strive to weaken recruitment in some sectors of the aviation industry. There's even a veto threat coming from the White House.

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Congress hasn't passed a reauthorization for FAA since 2003. Instead it's racked up 17 temporary extensions as agreements eluded the House and Senate. Friday's House bill authorizes $60 billion in spending over four years for the FAA, airports, freight programs and even some new GPS-based air traffic control systems. That's a reduction back to 2008 spending levels at the FAA.

"It acknowledges that – especially in these tough economic times – the federal government must make spending cuts while at the same time providing necessary services and maintaining our current high safety levels,” Rep. Chip Cravaak, a pilot who chairs the aviation subcommittee, said in a statement. Cravaak, a Minnesota Republican, knocked off long-time incumbent and transportation committee chairman Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010 mid-term election.

That take doesn't wash with a lot of Democrats.

They pointed out that the bill cuts close to $2 billion from a fund used to beef up airport terminals and runways at airports. Democrats attacked that cut as a job-killer.

Still the number is pretty far from the Senate's bid, passed in February. Senators voted to authorize just $34.5 billion over two years. Those differences are probably pretty easily bridged, according to lawmakers.

The House and Senate can also likely split the difference on an issue near and dear to DC pols' hearts: The number of long-distance passenger flight slots allowed out of Washington Reagan National Airport. West Coast lawmakers traditionally push for expanded slots that make it easier for constituents and lawmakers themselves to reach Washington directly.  The Senate would like to add 10 slots at Reagan, while the House wants 6.

But from there the issues get thorny. Rep. John Mica (R-Fl.), who chairs the House transportation and infrastructure committee, wants to do away with the Essential Air Service. That's a federal subsidy program used to encourage passenger airlines to fly to rural areas. But Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D), the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee chairman from rural West Virginia, not only wants to keep the program but grow it by about $75 million.

"What we'll end up with I don't know," Mica recently told the Aero Club of Washington, according to Congressional Quarterly.

An Republican amendment that got tacked onto the bill as riled Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). The amendment calls on FDA to take economic and business impacts into account when formulating safety regs. That prompted attacks from the families of passengers who died aboard Continental flight 3407, which went down in Buffalo in February, 2009. The crash was blamed on pilot fatigue and error, and families complained that the amendment would quash pending pilot rest time and safety rules.

Even USAirways hero pilot Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger got involved, taking a shot at Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), who proposed the amendment.

"I'll fight tooth and nail" against the amendment, Schumer said in a Friday tweet after the bill passed the House.

Shuster spokesperson Jeff Urbanchuk said that the Schumer's and the families' anger was based on a "misunderstanding" and that the amendment is meant only to affect future regulations, not ones in process like the pilot rest time rules.

"We don't want that to happen," Urbanchuck said.

Then there's the veto threat. Mica's bill also included a provision changing the rules for union recruitment in rail and aviation unions. "A new Obama Administration rule requires elections that union elections be decided based on the votes of workers present. But Mica's bill overturns the rule so that absentees are considered votes against union participation. An attempt to preserve the current, union-friendly rules failed on the House floor Friday despite picking up 16 Republican votes. President Obama shook his veto pen at the House earlier this week over the provision, suggesting that it will have to come out in negotiations with the Senate if FAA authorization is finally to become law.

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