The fight continues

WASHINGTON, D.C. — General aviation won major skirmishes in its user fee battle late last month , but the FAA reauthorization bill is a long way from completion.

The House and Senate are not very far apart from deciding on a bill that would be favorable to general aviation, but the bill passed by the House contains a measure about contentious labor negotiations with air traffic controllers that, according to a Republican representative, means “”the FAA bill is going nowhere.”" If the controller issue is left in the bill, it might bring a veto by the President.

The House bill — H.R. 2881 — passed 267 to 151. It would reauthorize the FAA for four years. There are no user fees, but GA fuel taxes would increase from 21.8 cents per gallon to 35.9 cents on jet fuel and from 19.3 cents per gallon to 24.1 cents on avgas. Both increases have been accepted by most general aviation interests in lieu of fees. The bill also would provide $15.8 billion for airport improvement programs, $1.8 billion for research and development, and $37.2 billion for FAA operations over the next four years.

General aviation groups were quick to compliment and thank the members of the House for not including user fees. Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), said the bill “”is a great model for funding our future aviation system.”" He added that its passage was the best news for general aviation with no user fees, only a modest increase in fuel taxes, and no tax breaks for the airlines.

In the Senate, a $25 user fee for general aviation jets and turboprops remains a basic difference from the House bill. The Senate is expected to take its bill to the floor sometime around the middle of October and then the two versions will go to conference.

The airlines, smarting from the House rebuff of their cry for fees against general aviation, indicated they would continue their efforts to keep user fees in the final bill. GA advocates, of course, said they will continue to fight against user fees.

The airlines also got another hit when an amendment from Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) requiring the Department of Transportation to gather information about cancelled, delayed, and diverted commercial flights stayed in the House-approved legislation.

COULD THIS SINK THE HOUSE BILL?

Another difference between the House and Senate versions is the inclusion in H.R 2881 of a provision to require the FAA to reopen negotiations with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) for a contract.

Eighteen months ago negotiations were broken off. Since that time, the FAA and NATCA have been at odds, with NATCA pointing to new pay scales resulting in an increased retirement rate, few new controllers coming in, and allegedly dangerous conditions resulting from reduced staff and more overtime work periods.

NATCA officials were quick to declare that, if passed into law, the House version “”would put fairness back into the collective bargaining process and provide a glimmer of hope that the current mass exodus of controllers from towers and radar positions could be stopped.”" NATCA officials report that, since Sept. 3, 2006, nearly 800 experienced controllers have retired.

This provision, if retained in the conference version, is likely to prevent the legislation from moving forward, said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which initiated the bill. Air traffic controllers comprise about one-third of the 45,000 FAA employees and the provision to require reopening of contract negotiations with them would be unfair to other employees, he said.

Mica added that President Bush has issued a veto threat if the controller issue stays in the bill. “”The 267 to 151 vote in the House is enough to sustain that veto,”" Mica noted.

NASTIER FIGHTS AHEAD?

Whatever the final outcome of the legislation, it is only a stop-gap action in the struggle for airspace and airport access.

Most people have known for decades that the present air traffic control system has limitations, despite Band-Aid type improvements like the coming next generation air traffic control changes.

The coming years will see even greater and nastier fights between aviation interests than was evident over the past few months unless new approaches to airport development and airspace management are developed.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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