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User Fee Issue Still Far From Settled

Congress passed two temporary extensions of the FAA reauthorization bill keeping the old bill in effect until December 31, 2007, and many believe additional extensions will be needed as the Democratic- controlled congress continues to bicker with the Bush Administration over the wars and spending. All of this means the user fee issue is far from settled and, in fact, may heat up in the months to come.

The Senate, particularly, is focusing much of its attention on military spending, including in the legislation time tables for withdrawal of troops and, in the President's view, many pork barrel projects. This brings vetoes.

Even when both houses get around to considering a full reauthorization, differences point to a lengthy debate. At first the Senate passed extension of only one portion of the FAA reauthorization bill, the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. The House added all other FAA operational issues, as Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill) said 'to ensure that essential services continue to operate without interruption.' The House had passed a full reauthorization, which did not include user fees.

In addition to the issue of user fees, the strife between the FAA and National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) raises additional questions over reauthorization. NATCA officials say the only way to settle the issue is for Congress to get involved. The bill passed by the House includes instructing the FAA and NATCA to return to the bargaining table. The Senate has not yet faced the issue.

As Congress prepares for its holiday recess, many aviation interests in Washington believe additional extensions of the current bill will be needed after the first of the year. Some predict it could be as late as the end of 2008, before a final bill is passed and signed by the President.

In the meantime, this delay in passage of the FAA reauthorization bill provides additional time for the airline industry to pressure for user fees to move general aviation out of what the carriers consider 'their airspace.' Undoubtedly, the airlines' long delays, missed connections, and cancelled flights over the heavy-travel holiday period will be spotlighted by the industry as examples of their need for priority air traffic control and airport access.

General aviation interests are urging that individuals keep the heat on their elected officials.

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