Will Congress ever agree on an FAA reauthorization bill?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Since Sept. 30, 2007, the FAA has been operating under short-term reauthorization bills — and the Congress just rushed through a 15th temporary funding bill on the final day before starting its August recess. This latest extension runs until Sept. 30.

The last time the House and Senate agreed on long-term reauthorization was in 2003. Uncertain funding has made it difficult for the agency to do long-term planning and is said to particularly affect the NextGen air traffic system.

The House, under leadership of both political parties, has passed reauthorization bills. The delay has been in the Senate’s failure to agree. There was optimism earlier this year when the Senate finally passed its long-term extension. But that quickly faded when conferences found issues on which neither body would budge.

While numerous relatively minor issues have been resolved, on two the House and Senate are stuck, including whether FedEx should stay under the Railway Labor Act or be transferred to the National Labor Relations Act. When FedEx began, it was primarily a service for flying parcels, so it came under the Railway Labor Act, which was passed to restrict strikes in the railway business by requiring all unionization efforts to be at the national level. As FedEx grew, it took on more local package deliveries by truck drivers. UPS, the largest competitor of FedEx, comes under the National Labor Relations Act, which permits unionization at the local level.

Versions of FAA reauthorization passed by the House have had language to move FedEx out of the Railway Act to the NLRB act, pleasing the unions that supported Barack Obama for President. The Senate has refused to make the change, pleasing FedEx, which threatened to cancel an order for as many as 30 new Boeing aircraft. Boeing also is happy with that decision.

When each temporary funding measure was passed, committee members and their staffs hoped to resolve the issue. But before this could be done, another area of contention arose: Whether to allow additional flights into Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA).

DCA is just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, making it extremely convenient for Washington insiders, particularly for members of Congress coming and going.

Years ago the number of flights going into DCA was limited to reduce noise and to help in the growth of Dulles International Airport (IAD). Currently at DCA, only 24 flights per day are permitted to go beyond a 1,250-mile perimeter. A curfew is in place from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. A section added to the FAA reauthorization would add 10 more long-distance flights each day, but members of the House and Senate cannot agree on this issue. While Congress is on its August break, staff members will be working to achieve an agreement.

ONE THING THEY DID AGREE ON

Included in the FAA funding bill are sections relating to airline safety, which came about after the accident of a commuter flight going into Buffalo, N.Y. Both houses of Congress wanted to put these changes into law, so at the last minute before starting the August recess, these sections were pulled from the reauthorization bill, put into a separate package and quickly passed by both Houses.

The new law requires the FAA to establish new regulations, including those that:

  • Require all airline pilots to hold an Air Transport Certificate, which requires 1,500 flight hours, replacing the current requirement of 250 flight hours;
  • Update and implement new flight and duty time rules for pilots;
  • Require all pilots be trained on how to recover from stalls and upsets and provide remedial training to pilots who need it; and
  • Establish a pilot records database to provide airlines with access to a pilot’s comprehensive record.

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

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