Bloomberg News

Aviation Policy Skirmishes End With U.S. Senate Passing FAA Bill

February 13, 2012

Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Senate’s approval yesterday of a bill to run the Federal Aviation Administration for four years ends the political gridlock that triggered a two-week partial shutdown of the agency last year.

“Many compromises were made to get us here,” Senator Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the commerce committee, said during debate. “Compromises in the present atmosphere are not easy. And while no one got everything they wanted, the bill will permit us to achieve our shared goals.”

The bill, which authorizes $63.4 billion in FAA spending through 2015, goes to President Barack Obama for his signature after being passed by the House on Feb. 2. It’s the first long- term law guiding U.S. aviation policy and spending since the last such measure expired in 2007. The agency has since operated under 23 short-term extensions.

The legislation includes a faster timetable for completing air-traffic control upgrades known as NextGen. It requires aircraft flying in congested airways to use the new technology by 2020 and orders the FAA to develop more efficient routes into the busiest airports.

The bill would cut U.S. subsidies that encourage airlines to serve rural airports. Rockefeller tried to protect those flights in his home state, while John Mica, the Florida Republican who leads the House transportation committee, sought to eliminate them except in Alaska.

Flammable Batteries

U.S. regulators will be restricted in efforts to enact new requirements for shipping lithium batteries on cargo jets, which technology companies including Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. had fought.

Regulators cannot adopt rules that are more strict than those of the United Nations. Tougher battery standards can be created under a one-year emergency measure or if the secretary of transportation finds that batteries have caused fires.

The legislation also provides for eight additional round trip flights a day from Washington’s Reagan National Airport to cities more than 1,250 miles away. U.S. rules now permit 12 such round trip flights.

Security companies would have an easier time winning contracts to operate airport checkpoints.

Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole last year froze the number of airports allowed to have private firms performing screening at 16. The legislation would require the TSA to reconsider applications for private screeners that it had rejected.

FAA Shutdown

The bill is an important stimulus to a sector that creates more than $1 trillion a year in economic activity, Rockefeller said.

“We will create and sustain jobs in every state,” he said.

Passage of a bill was held up last year by Democrats’ objections to a Republican-sponsored provision in the House version that would have overturned a 2010 U.S. National Mediation Board decision making it easier to form a union at airlines and railroads.

Tensions over the labor issue and rural-flight subsidies triggered a partial shutdown of the FAA from July 23 to Aug. 5 after Congress couldn’t pass an extension allowing the agency to operate.

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 Compromise

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, brokered a deal they announced Jan. 20 that stripped the labor provision from the bill. Reid agreed to other changes in NMB election rules that would make it more difficult to unionize.

Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the committee overseeing labor law, said yesterday that he objected to the compromise.

“I call it an abuse of our legislative process and we shouldn’t let it happen,” Harkin said during the debate.

While some labor groups endorsed the compromise, others called for its defeat, contending that it would make it harder for workers to organize. A group of 18 unions issued a joint statement last week opposing the agreement.

The bill is a “compromise in name only,” the Communications Workers of America said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that urged Senate Democrats to oppose the bill. The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents almost 60,000 people at 23 airlines, is part of the CWA.

--Editors: Bernard Kohn, Andrea Snyder

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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