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The U.S. House of Representatives on May 21 approved the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009, appropriating funds for the Federal Aviation Administration through fiscal 2012. Still awaiting a companion bill from the U.S. Senate, the House legislation earmarks about $10 billion in funding for a Next Generation Air Transportation System and includes various provisions related to safety, security and airspace congestion. Years overdueand approved in the House along party lines, the legislation also includes a proposed increase in the maximum passenger facility charge that airports can levy, a host of customer service items and controversial measures on airline alliance antitrust immunity and foreign ownership interests in U.S. airlines.
The U.S. Senate, which confirmed for a five-year term Randy Babbittas FAA administrator, on May 13 held a committee hearing on FAA reauthorization. Some witnesses and committee members favored much of what is laid out in the House bill, while others opposed some of the measures.
NextGen is the central topic. "The technology has marched ahead, but the air traffic control system has not," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security. "Part of that is the fault of the Congress, and part is the fault of a bureaucracy in federal agencies that slow everything down as a matter of habit. We want to change that. FAA is talking 2020 or 2025 [for full NextGen deployment]. There is no reason to be out that far."
According to the House bill, the benefits of NextGen "in terms of promoting economic growth and development, are enormous." It calls on FAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and U.S. departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce and Transportation to work cooperatively and make "transformational improvements to the United States air transportation infrastructure a priority."
The bill establishes an office and a director to oversee NextGen implementation and monitor "specific quantitative goals." The DOT secretary would issue annual progress reports to Congress.
The bill also directs the Comptroller General within 18 months of final legislation to submit a report to Congress on cutting congestion "in the national airspace at airports during peak travel times, by evaluating the effectiveness of reducing flight schedules and staggering flights, developing incentives for airlines to reduce the number of flights offered, and instituting slots and quotas at airports."
Furthermore, when hourly aircraft operations at a given airport exceed prescribed limits and have "a significant adverse effect on the national or regional airspace system," the FAA administrator would conference with affected carriers and determine how to reduce takeoffs and landings. If participating carriers cannot reach an agreement, "the administrator shall take such action as is necessary to ensure such reduction is implemented."
The bill would raise the cap on passenger facility charges to $7 per flight from $4.50. It also directs the DOT secretary to determine if airports that handle a greater percentage of accommodating passengers should apply different levels of PFCs, based on differences in airport costs and PFC revenues.
During the Senate hearing, American Association of Airport Executives president Chip Barclay said that "the $4.50 PFC was put in place back in 2000 and is only worth $2.50 in today's construction dollars. At some airports, they do not need to increase PFCs. At others, they need to badly.
"It is an argument between a landlord and a tenant," Barclay added. "The landlord, the airports, have to balance their tenants' desires for low costs with the need for airport improvements that can take a decade."
The National Business Travel Association, which praised passage of the House bill, said it was "concerned" by the PFC proposal, adding that "now is the wrong time to target air travelers with additional charges."
During the Senate hearing, Air Transport Association president James May implored lawmakers to "resist those that see airlines and their passengers as the aviation equivalent of an ATM machine. We are in an economic crisis. This is the [worst] time we should increase the level of PFCs."
When asked by Dorgan what his response on higher PFCs would be "if we weren't in a crisis," May replied, "The same. It has more impact in a crisis because it ultimately goes as an increase in prices."
The House legislation would require airlines within 90 days of enactment to submit an emergency contingency plan for operations at large and medium hub airports, describing how they will provide food, clean water, restroom facilities, cabin ventilation and access to medical treatment for passengers onboard planes on the ground "for an extended period of time without access to the terminal." The contingency plan also must include an airline's process for allowing passengers during "excessive delays" to deplane and plans for sharing gates and facilities during emergencies. Airport operators similarly would be required to submit contingency plans for emergencies or excessive tarmac delays.
The DOT secretary also would be tasked with investigating various types of customer complaints; establishing a "consumer complaints hotline;" convening an advisory committee on consumer protections; evaluating by May 19, 2010, whether denied boarding compensation is appropriate; adjusting that compensation level if it is not; and issuing within 180 days regulations requiring airlines to provide all passengers "an option to receive a text message or email or any other comparable electronic service" to notify about flight status changes.
The Comptroller General and DOT's Inspector General also would be required to conduct reviews. DOT IG would explore delays and cancellations, examine "air carriers' scheduling practices" and determine "the need for a re-examination of capacity benchmarks at the nation's busiest airports." The Comptroller General would investigate baggage handling delays and submit recommendations on "minimum standards" for passenger compensation in the case of "an unreasonable delay in the delivery of checked baggage." The study would consider "the additional fees for checked baggage that are imposed by many air carriers and how the additional fees should improve an air carrier's baggage performance."
Meanwhile, the legislation stipulates that passengers "may not engage in voice communications using a mobile communications device in an aircraft during a flight," except when using "a phone installed on an aircraft."
Environmental Issues, Antitrust Immunity And Foreign Ownership
As written by the House, the FAA reauthorization legislation conflicts with European Union positions on antitrust immunity, foreign ownership and environmental concerns. On the latter, the House objects to E.U.'s greenhouse gas emissions trading proposal because it did not include the International Civil Aviation Organization "in a consensus-based fashion."
The House bill also calls on the FAA administrator to work with NASA and the United States Climate Change Science Program "to assess the impact of aviation on the climate and, if warranted, to evaluate approaches to mitigate that impact." It also would require the DOT secretary to launch research into alternative jet fuels.
Meanwhile, the Comptroller General is directed to study how DOT grants antitrust immunity to airline alliances; whether previous grants should be amended or revoked; how immunized alliances impact competition, service, pricing and other consumer concerns; and "the effect of international alliances on the number and quality of jobs for United States air carrier flight crew employees, including the share of alliance flying done by those employees."
The legislation specifically states that the Comptroller General's study should determine whether alliance immunity requests "should be treated as mergers, and therefore be exclusively subject to a traditional merger analysis by the Attorney General." The study would be submitted within a year of the bill's enactment, "including any recommendations ... or policy changes that the secretary can implement administratively."
As previously indicated by U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., sponsor of the House FAA reauthorization bill, the legislation includes language describing how antitrust exemptions would expire after three years unless renewed by the DOT secretary.
Addressing another of Oberstar's agenda items, the bill amends existing law to ensure that "an air carrier shall not be deemed to be under the actual control of citizens of the United States unless citizens of the United States control all matters pertaining to the business and structure of the air carrier, including operational matters, such as marketing, branding, fleet composition, route selection, pricing, and labor relations."
The Air Line Pilots Association "strongly" backs that type of provision, according to its president Capt. John Prater, speaking during the Senate committee hearing.
It is unclear whether the Senate would include such measures when it drafts its own version of the FAA reauthorization. "I hope that we can have a bipartisan bill that really focuses on the two major issues of safety, which is number one, and NextGen," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, speaking during the Senate subcommittee hearing. "I hope that we will look to confine the FAA reauthorization bill to those key issues and not get bogged down in other controversial, nonessential issues."
The House approved FAA reauthorization 277-136. All but 37 voting Democrats supported the bill, while all but four voting Republicans rejected the bill.
In the Senate, "We want to try to put a bill together in a reasonably short period of time, move it out of the commerce committee in the next couple of months and then get into a conference" with the House of Representatives, Dorgan said. "We are not just wasting time, we are falling behind."
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