Bloomberg News

Agreement on U.S. Aviation Bill to End Stop-Gap Efforts

February 06, 2012

(Updates with Reid spokesman in fourth paragraph.)

Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) -- House and Senate lawmakers ended more than four years of standoffs by reaching agreement yesterday on a four-year, $63.6 billion U.S. aviation bill that keeps current funding levels and speeds development of new air-traffic technology.

“Today we proved we can do better,” Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said. “None of us is 100 percent happy. That’s the nature of the things we do.”

The bill guides Federal Aviation Administration policy, sets its annual budget and contains dozens of provisions on everything from creating the NextGen air-traffic system to the types of musical instruments airline passengers can carry onto flights. The agreement, leading toward the FAA’s first long-term authorization since the last one expired in 2007, was announced at a conference-committee meeting of 20 lawmakers.

The bill may be the next measure considered by the Senate and go to the floor early next week, Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, said today.

Tensions between Democrats and Republicans over union- organizing rules and rural-flight subsidies triggered a partial shutdown of the FAA from July 23 to Aug. 5 after Congress let the agency’s operating authority lapse.

The shutdown stopped airport construction projects, forced the FAA to furlough about 4,000 employees and cost the government at least $468 million in airline-ticket and aviation- fuel taxes, according to government and industry data compiled by Bloomberg.

Labor Provision

House Republicans wanted the bill to overturn a 2010 U.S. National Mediation Board action that said unions needed to capture more than 50 percent of those voting to win representation. Previously, the board required yes votes from more than half of all employees.

In a deal brokered by Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, lawmakers agreed Jan. 20 to drop the provision in exchange for increased audits of the NMB and changes favoring industry in run-off elections and the threshold for triggering an election.

The legislation cuts subsidies for service to rural airports, a program that Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has championed and that John Mica, the Florida Republican who leads the House transportation committee, wanted to eliminate except in Alaska.

Lithium Batteries

U.S. regulators would face limits in enacting tougher requirements for carrying lithium batteries on cargo jets, which technology companies including Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. had fought.

Regulators can enact tougher rules on those batteries, which can burst into flames, under a one-year emergency measure, said Vincent Morris, a spokesman for Rockefeller. Alternately, if the secretary of transportation finds that batteries have caused fires, that could also trigger new rules, Morris said.

Funding for the FAA will remain at $15.9 billion a year, more than what House Republicans had sought and less than Senate Democrats’ target.

“All of us at this table made compromises,” Rockefeller said in opening remarks.

Passengers flying from Washington’s Reagan National Airport will get more long flights under the legislation, according to a statement from Rockefeller’s office.

U.S. rules now permit 12 round-trip flights to destinations more than 1,250 miles from Washington. The legislation will allow another eight round-trips -- four to large carriers at the airport and four to newer entrants, Morris said.

NextGen CEO

The legislation sets faster timetables for upgrading the U.S. air-traffic control system and requires the FAA to create a “Chief NextGen Officer” to oversee the project.

The FAA is building a system to track aircraft based on global-positioning satellites instead of radar and upgrading communication between the ground and planes. The system is projected to cost the FAA and airlines as much as $42 billion by 2025.

“I thank you for putting up with me and never letting up on the shared desire to get this bill done,” Mica said.

Funding for airport construction grants was set at $3.35 billion a year, according to a statement from Mica’s office. That level is below the $3.5 billion approved for 2011.

The bills being merged by the conference committee are H.R. 658 and S.B. 223.

--With assistance from Laura Litvan in Washington. Editors: Bernard Kohn, Romaine Bostick

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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