The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 (HR 2881) was adopted by the House of Representatives today in a 267-151 vote. The Senate bill will be voted on soon–and will contain significant differences than the House bill, requiring a battle royal in conference.
I have paid very little attention to news coverage of FAA funding politics, mostly because the two parties annoy me. (Excursions with Edna the Class Warrior, I’m looking at you.) The media have tended to write more about the parties interested in the legislation–airlines, the ATA, general aviation pilots, AOPA–rather than the bills themselves. The debate is over who should pay how much and in what ways for air traffic control services. The FAA is currently funded by general federal funds (about 20 percent) and the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (about 80 percent), which collects revenue from a variety of taxes, fees, and charges levied on airlines and passengers. But now that the House bill has passed, I’ll hit the highlights here, after the jump.
- The maximum passenger facility charge (PFC)–a fee charged to airlines (and passed on to fliers) by airports for FAA-approved projects–will increase from $4.50 to $7.00. (111.b)
- There are some windy pronouncements on the importance of aviation to the nation. There are more windy pronouncements about how important NextGen is. (201)
- The Government Accountability Office is ordered to make reports to Congress on how NextGen implementation is going. (206-07)
- Pilots, who are currently required to retire at sixty, may now fly until sixty-five–if there is another pilot under sixty on the flight deck. (301) This provision, little-noticed, will wreak havoc on airline staff schedulers. Pilots choose routes based on seniority; what if a sixty-three-year-old captain and a sixty-two-year-old first officer, both senior, hold a popular route? Well, they can’t bump the copilot in favor of a younger first officer–that’s against the seniority rules in the contract. The airline would have to pay the older copilot to stay home. Furthermore, airlines contribute to B-funds for pilots–a special retirement fund to compensate pilots for their forced pre-Social Security eligibility retirement. Given the way many airlines gutted their defined-benefit pensions during bankruptcy, the airlines will probably jump at the chance to ditch another labor obligation.
- Pilot’s licenses will be improved (306)
- The FAA is to conduct a study on pilot fatigue–not a small problem. (308)
- Unmanned aircraft are coming! A plan for how to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into the nation’s airspace and air traffic control is mandated by the legislation and ordered due by 2012. UAVs are really exciting–they may eventually become standard for cargo shipping, and their systems may eventually be installed on all commercial aircraft, so that in case of a cockpit emergency a remote control team can land a plane.
- Thanks to West Coast lobbying, there will now be five more roundtrip flights available from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to destinations beyond the 1,250 mile perimeter. (402) Why is Congress still involved in this affair? The perimeter was originally established to promote the growth of Dulles, then way out past even distant ‘burbs. Dulles has come into its own now; it no longer needs federal protection from competition at Reagan.
- Funding for Essential Air Service is increased. (404)
- There is even a stealth proto-passenger’s bill of rights! (406) Airlines are required to submit emergency contingency plans for how they will provide food, water, ventilation, and medical and lavatory services for flights delayed by extended periods of time, as well as how they will share gates and parking spaces in the event of a crisis like the JetBlue Valentine’s Day fiasco. Watch for these contingency plans eventually to be given the force of statute. Interestingly, this requirement only applies to aircraft accommodating sixty or more–many regional jet types are excluded.
So there you have it. You may have noticed something missing . . . yes, it’s the institution of user fees. The House bill increases fuel taxes (aviation gasoline by 25 percent; aviation kerosene by 64 percent) to fund FAA operations and NextGen development. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association really likes this bill; they want to stick to the current funding system, and the House bill makes no substantive changes. The Air Transport Association, the lobby group for airlines and sponsor of Smart Skies, is not so pleased. President Bush has threatened to veto the House bill.
Tomorrow: the Senate version!