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FAA Reauthorization: Closer To What GA Wants But No Final Agreement

Congress failed to complete a FAA reauthorization bill by September 30 and had to pass a temporary measure, extending the agency's spending authority and giving itself until November 16 to agree on funding the aviation trust fund and keeping the FAA in business. The Senate and House were not too far apart on their versions but many feared the controller issue might be a snag to getting acceptable legislation to avoid a veto.

The House passed H.R. 2881 by a margin of 267 to 151. It would increase the fuel tax on aviation gas from 19.3 cents per gallon to 24.1 cents and on jet fuel from 21.8 cents per gallon to 39.9 cents. Both these increases cover inflation, lawmakers said and they are acceptable to general aviation interests.

Over in the Senate, however, their version'S 1300'imposes a $25 air traffic control user fee on jet-powered aircraft. It is questionable whether or not this fee will stay in the final version when it is considered on the floor, expected about the middle of October. Earlier, the Senate Finance Committee dealt a blow to the airlines by voting to keep the ticket taxes the same and not penalizing general aviation as the carriers had been lobbying for.

Once the Senate completes its version, the two bills will go to conference. In the meantime, general aviation interests are keeping up their efforts to get the House to stand firm on its 'no user fee' position.

The FAA and the Bush Administration have been striving for a fee structure in the reauthorization. Whatever the outcome of the differences between the House and the Senate on this issue, there is a strong possibility that President Bush will veto the legislation if it contains a provision relating to labor relations with controllers. The House version would require the FAA to reopen negotiations for a contract with National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), which were broken off a year and a-half ago.

Since negotiations were terminated, the FAA and NATCA have been at odds over staffing, salaries, safety, delays, condition of working facilities, short staffing of facilities, and mandatory overtime. Air traffic controllers account for about one-third of the FAA's 45,000 employees.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL), ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, calls the provision for the labor action 'a death knell' for the reauthorization bill. He says reopening the labor negotiations 'unfairly benefits controllers to the detriment of other professionals in the FAA.' Mica says the President has issued a veto threat against the bill.

There are still many 'ifs' surrounding the reauthorization bill: if the Senate passes a bill with the $25 per flight user fee; if it stays in during conference, if the labor issue stays, if the President issues as veto, if the veto is sustained or overridden, if final action can be taken to pass an acceptable bill before the November 16 expiration of the temporary extension, and if there is no agreement, what is next?

While general aviation interests ponder these 'ifs,' the airlines are taking bashings, giving them reasons to lash out at others over their problems. The House bill also contains a provision requiring the airlines to collect comprehensive data relating to flight delays, cancelled and diverted flights. Hearings are being held in the House seeking reasons for the surge in airline flight problems. According to NATCA, airline flight delays have jumped from 285,000 in 2002 to 728,000 in the first five months of this year.

As the airlines get more criticism for their delayed and cancelled flights, general aviation interests expect them to lash out stronger at others to take some of the heat off.

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