Will Congress finally pass FAA reauthorization?

Or is 18th temporary extension imminent?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The FAA has been operating on temporary extensions of authority and financing since 2007 when the Republicans last controlled the House of Representatives. Although both the Senate and House passed reauthorization bills each year, the two sides of Capitol Hill could not agree on issues, leading to 17 temporary extensions for the agency.

In last year’s election, Rep. James Oberstar, who had been a major factor in holding to House-passed positions, was defeated. With that, it was hoped a joint position could be achieved.

Looking to get a quick resolution of the delayed passage, both the Senate and the House placed FAA reauthorization as the first major legislation to be taken up in the new 112th Congress. But good intentions hit partisan snags.

The Senate was first to act. To speed things up, an agreement between the political parties limited to the number of amendments to the reauthorization bill at just two. That agreement was soon broken when an amendment to repeal the Obama health bill was introduced, debated and defeated along party lines. Once the agreement was broken, it opened the door to others. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed an amendment to eliminate the $200 million Essential Air Service program (EAS), which is a subsidy to airlines serving small communities that has been in effect for more than 30 years since the airlines were deregulated. As of mid-2010, airlines serving about 150 communities in the lower 48 states were receiving subsidies ranging from as much as $5,223 per passenger in Ely, Nev., to as low as $9.21 in Thief River Falls, Minn., according to data from the Department of Transportation.

What makes this important to general aviation is the effect the elimination of EAS would have on federal aid to airports used primarily by general aviation.

Before debate on the reauthorization bill began, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, two other senators and the president of the American Association of Airport Executives held a news conference urging quick passage of the bill. They stressed the vital economic importance of air service to the smaller communities, both EAS by regional airlines and general aviation flights to small towns.

After McCain’s announcement to propose elimination of the EAS, Rockefeller immediately countered that he would “fight tooth and nail” to protect essential air service.

Reid says without EAS his home state of Nevada would have only two cities with airline service, Las Vegas and Reno. Other cities depend on smaller airports and air service — both scheduled and general aviation—for economic development, he adds. Rockefeller also cites the importance of smaller airports to his state of West Virginia.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, a group of representatives in the House has also proposed elimination of the EAS. In both Houses this issue is expected to be hotly debated. Whatever the outcome, agreement between the Senate and the House versions must be reached to have a final bill to send to the President.

User fees vs. fuel taxes for general aviation is another point that must be resolved. The Senate Finance Committee is considering this issue, favoring increased fuel taxes. Once this committee agrees on a bill, it will be passed to the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to be included in the reauthorization bill.

These issues affecting the FAA and all of aviation are tangled enough to cause long and bitter debates. In the Republican-controlled House, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has expressed concerns over expenditures of the Transportation Security Administration and the delays and expenditures of NextGen, the next generation of air traffic control.

On top of these concerns, however, is the determination by the Republicans in both Houses to reel in spending and cut federal programs to begin reducing the massive federal debt, with the Democrats equally determined to continue investments to spur job growth and the economy.

The hope of many to finally get a two-year reauthorization of the FAA is looking more and more unlikely to happen. The current temporary extension expires March 31. Unless these financial issues can be resolved before that time, FAA will face its 18th extension.

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

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