FAA Reauthorization and the Future of Air Traffic Control

National Journal’s Transportation Experts blog asks:

What Does The Senate Commerce Bill Mean For FAA Reauthorization? On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee passed a $35 billion bill to reauthorize Federal Aviation Administration programs through fiscal year 2011. The bill sidestepped the politically tricky funding issue, but it would accelerate the timetable for implementing the NextGen system of satellite-based air traffic control.

Though I have concerns over some of its provisions, I’m glad to see the Senate Commerce Committee finally moving forward on FAA reauthorization. By the time they get the Senate bill passed and into conference committee with the House, it will be two full years since the previous authorization lapsed (to be extended again and again, since September 2007).

First, the good news. The Senate bill is for just two years. That jibes with the Obama administration’s intent to replace most of the current aviation excise tax structure with air traffic control user fees after 2011. That is a long-overdue reform that’s been supported by a half-dozen expert national commissions, most recently one chaired by Norman Mineta.

And the Senate bill does not contain the ridiculous protectionist nonsense of the House bill, attacking global airline alliances and imposing new inspection requirements on FAA-certified foreign repair stations. These provisions pose serious risks to U.S.-Europe cooperation in aviation. There is no problem in these areas that Congress needs to solve.

But the Senate bill is flawed in at least two important ways. First, unlike the House measure, it does not permit a much-needed increase in the cap on passenger facility charges (PFCs) at airports. This local self-help measure has become a vital funding source for expansion and modernization of airport facilities, but the current $4.50 cap has not kept pace with construction cost inflation. The House bill calls for a reasonable increase.

Also, the Senate bill in its own way seeks to micromanage the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization as it begins implementing the much-needed NextGen modernization. The old saying that “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is applicable here. Congress created the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) to be a businesslike entity, yet refuses to delegate to it the ability to make management decisions about major modernization programs like NextGen. We do not need either house imposing new management structures or setting specific deadlines for implementing pieces of NextGen. Instead, Congress should allow the ATO to function as it was intended to do, working these things out with its aviation customers.