FAA Patch Clears Senate, Lands Next on Obama's Desk

By Stephanie Beasley

July 13 — The Senate cleared an FAA extension 89-4, sending it to the president's desk ahead of a July 15 deadline to renew federal aviation programs.

The measure (H. Res. 818) extends Federal Aviation Administration programs and related taxes through Sept. 30, 2017. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) has touted the bill's emphasis on enhancing airport security in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks at airports in Brussels and Istanbul. Specifically, it would increase the number of bomb-sniffing dogs and expand the Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck program. Those changes could take effect as soon as this summer, Thune said.

Under the bill, the FAA also would be required to conduct a pilot program to better identify and deter drones flying near airports and to streamline its hiring process for air traffic controllers. Airlines would be required to refund fees for lost and delayed baggage and to seat children with families.

House Hijacked Long-Term Bill: Moran

The policy changes in the bill are not enough, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said on the floor before voting against the FAA bill. Moran—whose state is home to the aircraft manufacturers Cessna Aircraft Co., Beechcraft Corp. and Bombardier Inc.'s Learjet Inc.—said the bill should have included more changes to FAA functions, including an overhaul of the agency's aircraft certification process.

Those kinds of measures were included in both the Senate-passed and House-committee approved long-term FAA reauthorizations. But instead of moving forward with those policy provisions, House lawmakers held long-term FAA reauthorization hostage in an attempt to try to leverage an “unpopular” air traffic control overhaul plan, Moran said.

Both congressional appropriators and tax writers with jurisdiction over the FAA objected to the proposal to remove air traffic control from the agency and transfer control to a nonprofit corporation that would be headed by air traffic controllers and national airspace users, including major airlines. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said he will try to build support for the idea over the next year (See previous story, 03/24/16).

Prospects Next Year

Thune has neither outright opposed nor wholly embraced the idea of a major air traffic control overhaul.

“I've expressed an openness to better ways of doing things,” he told reporters. “The [air traffic control] reforms that have been talked about in the House [are] one solution. I'm open to ideas that people might have about how we can do a better job, about how we can get NextGen technologies implemented more quickly. But I just think politically that's going to be a pretty steep hill to climb.”

Lawmakers and federal watchdog agencies have criticized the FAA for moving too slowly on its implementation of NextGen—a multiyear, multibillion-dollar transition from a radio- to satellite-based navigation system.

However, Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said during a press briefing that he remained staunchly opposed to the idea of privatizing air traffic control. He said the plan does not have the support of the Defense Department.

Airlines for America (A4A), the leading U.S. airline industry lobbing group and a key supporter of the House air traffic control plan, applauded Congress for passing an FAA bill with bipartisan support but said that efforts must be made to modernize the aviation system.

“A4A remains committed to working with the Administration, Congress and all stakeholders to deliver the transformational [air traffic control] reform that airline customers across the country deserve,” the group said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

For More Information

A summary of the FAA bill is available here: http://src.bna.com/gyc.

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.