Years of procrastination on reauthorizing a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding bill has resulted in temporary extensions since 2007, with the last full authorization coming in 2003.
The 2011 bill proposes about $35 billion in spending over the next decade to implement a new air traffic control surveillance system, support capital improvement projects at the nation’s airports, expand service to rural and regional airports and enshrine into law a “passenger bill of rights.” Democrats said the bill is paid for and would not add to the nation’s deficit.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid touted the bill’s ability to get people back to work and the nation’s economy back on track.
“This legislation will save or create up to 280,000 jobs,” he said, citing estimates provided by the American Association of Airport Executives.
No timetable for passage of the bill was given, and Reid promised an open amendment process in debating the legislation.
Democrats pointed to the importance of having an efficient and properly funded aviation sector to support the nation’s economic recovery.
The airline industry accounts for more than 11 million jobs nationwide and $1.2 trillion in annual economic activity.
In Nevada, between Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RTIA) and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, the airline industry employs more than 20,000 people, serves 45 million passengers per year and generates more than $30 billion annually to local economies.
But airport delays around the country cost the industry about $30 billion annually. Democrats said the bill would reduce total delays by more than 20 percent.
The proposed passenger bill of rights requires greater transparency of how airline user and purchase fees are charged, mandates that airlines and airports enact contingency plans for delays and places fines on those carriers that exceed runway wait times and do not disembark passengers within three hours.
But these protections are largely in place at the RTIA, spokesperson Brian Kulpin said.
Fog delays in San Francisco often reroute plans to Reno, and “we put together a plan to handle those situations,” he said, including stocking extra food, water and other provisions.
A major aspect of the FAA bill entails establishing the Next Generation Airport Transportation System, or NextGen, a new satellite and GPS-based air traffic control surveillance system designed to replace ground-based radar and improve both the safety and efficiency of the air travel industry.
Officials said the United States is the only Western nation not already using such a system.
A contentious aspect of the bill is its lack of new passenger facility charges, which might derail the legislation if an amendment supporting them is not approved.
Kulpin said the RTIA would like to see a $3 increase in passenger facility charges — from $4.50 to $7.50 per flight purchase — to fund airport improvements, such as a consolidation of its two checkpoints. Kulpin said moving a checkpoint to the front end of the terminals would allow passengers access to restaurants and shops after going through security.
An almost identical bill passed the senate 93-0 last year, an unusual victory for bipartisanship during a time when Democrats and Republicans clashed vehemently over issues like health care reform.
However, the bill ultimately stalled in the House of Representatives, due in part to labor union amendments and disagreement over passenger facility charges.
A resurgent Republican majority in the House has vowed to cut spending, and the FAA reauthorization might be jeopardized as a result. But Democrats are still optimistic the bill will find its way to the president’s desk.
“Turbulence caused the bill to fail last year,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, waxed metaphorically, “but we expect blue skies ahead.”