House passes FAA funding bill

The House passed a bill today to keep the Federal Aviation Administration flying through 2011, but a threat from the White House to ground the plan and a different approach from the Senate mean the agency’s budget is still up in the air.

Lawmakers have been under increasing pressure this summer to pass a budget plan for the agency as it looks to implement new solutions to battle record air congestion and flight delays through its NextGen program, which will cost $15 billion to $22 billion.

Advocates of the House bill say it would provide record funding for improvements to the U.S. air system while maintaining the current tax and financing structure. The measure would adjust the general-aviation jet fuel tax from 21.8 cents per gallon to almost 36 cents a gallon and raise commercial costs from 19.3 cents per gallon to 24.1 cents per gallon. It would also increase passenger facility charges – the amount fliers pay to airports -- from $4.50 to $7. That change would raise $1.1 billion per year, advocates say.

FAA and commercial airlines have been arguing for a new funding system that would increase the amount that general-aviation, private or corporate fliers must pay in taxes while charging commercial airlines user fees. The agency says the current system unfairly taxes commercial carriers.

Lobbying groups are split on the bill. The Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents commercial airlines, spoke out against it earlier this week, after the House Ways and Means Committee passed the bill.

“It is unfortunate that the committee couldn’t take the necessary time to fully develop a more far-reaching proposal to ensure an equitable funding stream to finance needed modernization,” said James May, president and chief executive officer at ATA. “The minimal increases in corporate plane fuel taxes represent a ‘business as usual’ approach that simply does not do enough to solve the fundamental problem of a broken and inequitably funded air traffic control system.”

Meanwhile, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents more than 400,000 general-aviation aircraft owners and pilots, has come out in favor of the House bill.

It is less enthusiastic about the Senate version, which would impose a surcharge of $25 per flight on owners or operators of passenger aircraft for air traffic control costs. The bill is still making its way to the Senate floor for a vote. General-aviation advocates say they worry about the precedent any user fees set.

The House bill could reopen contract negotiations between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The Bush administration said this would distract managers’ attention in a policy statement released Sept. 19.

“If H.R. 2881 were presented to the president, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill,” the statement said.

Lawmakers are working to pass an extension to continue the current funding structure in case they don’t reach an agreement before funding runs out Sept. 30. The bill has to go to a conference committee before it goes to the White House.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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