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Thu, Jun 28, 2007

AOPA Endorses House FAA Funding Bill

Even With Fuel Tax Increases, It's "A Great Bill"

If this is what we end up with, general aviation will win the user fee battle... but that's a BIG "if." The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association says release of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 from the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is a giant step forward... though the group cautions we're far from the end of a 12-step process.

The bill must now be considered by the House Ways and Means Committee, which will actually set the taxes on aviation fuel and passenger tickets. The Science and Technology Committee will also have a say, and the Rules Committee will determine if the bill gets to the House floor for a vote.

At different points during the bill's journey toward that floor vote, amendments could be offered that might change some provision of the legislation. Meanwhile, another FAA funding bill is making its way through the Senate, where it is currently under review by the Senate Finance Committee after coming out of the Commerce Committee. That bill, too, could be modified at any point.

After the full Senate approves its version of the bill, and the full House votes on the FAA reauthorization bill, both bills go to a conference committee made up of selected lawmakers appointed from the House and Senate.

The conference committee will reconcile the differences between the two versions of the bill. And sometimes unexpected or "stealth" measures can slip in during conference.

From the conference committee, the final bill goes back to the House and Senate for a vote again. If approved by both bodies, it then goes to the president, who can sign it into law or veto the legislation.

"As you can see, the fight is far from over," said AOPA President Phil Boyer, "and we have to be ready to challenge any attempts to dismember the House bill."

AOPA says, by and large, the House got it right -- an FAA funding bill that would modernize the air traffic control system, increase airport funding, and do it all within the existing tax structure. User fees for ATC services are listed nowhere in the bill.

"The leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and aviation subcommittee refused to be bullied by the airlines or accept the FAA's claims of poverty," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "They took a reasoned, rational look at what needed to be done and how to pay for it, and delivered a solution that promotes the interests of all segments of aviation."

Boyer also thanked Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), aviation subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello (D-IL), and ranking members John Mica (R-FL) and Thomas Petri (R-WI), "for their vision in crafting this bipartisan bill that would ensure America's air transportation system remains the best in the world."

More Money For ATC Modernization

AOPA notes that, under the House plan, nearly $13 billion would be available for ATC modernization, the FAA's NextGen ATC modernization program and other FAA capital improvements. That's more than $1 billion beyond what the administration proposed in the FAA's actual bill.

Airports would be slated for $15.8 billion in improvements over the course of the bill -- some $4 billion more than what the administration proposed. The Transportation Committee adjusted some of the funding formulas to ensure that smaller GA airports — which have no other significant source of capital improvement money — would receive a reasonable amount of these Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds.

"And the committee was able to significantly enhance the FAA's budget without resorting to radical new funding schemes or user fees," said Boyer.

Increased Fuel Taxes

Closer to the pocketbook of most pilots, the Transportation Committee will recommend a modest increase in aviation fuel taxes to the House Ways and Means Committee, which has the ultimate authority to set taxes.

Jet fuel taxes would increase from 21.8 to 30.7 cents per gallon, and avgas taxes would go from 19.3 to 24.1 cents per gallon.

While no increase is a good increase, Boyer notes "that's less than a nickel increase for avgas, and is based on the rate of inflation since the last reauthorization in 1998."

"It's a price worth paying to take our aviation system to the future. And it's a whole heck of lot better than the 263-percent tax increase and user fees that the FAA wanted."

Tighter Control Over FAA Spending

AOPA notes while the committee was willing to give the FAA more than enough to build NextGen, it also took stern measures to make sure the money would be spent wisely. In particular, committee members cast a wary eye over the FAA's plans to contract out the building and operating of the ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) system, the "backbone" of NextGen.

They noted the FAA's first effort at contracting out a major service -- Lockheed's takeover of the flight service station system -- had significant start-up problems. "Given the large scale of the [ADS-B] acquisition, the bill requires the FAA to insert provisions into the contract that will protect the government's interest and help the FAA to ensure uninterrupted service," noted a committee summary of the bill.

The House didn't ignore current flight service station problems, either. "Users have reported serious and systemic safety-related technical and operational performance problems [with the AFSS system]," the committee said.

If The House Wins, GA Wins

In summary, Boyer said all parties involved would do well to adhere as closely as possible to the House funding plan for the FAA.

"As we consider the three FAA reauthorization bills now pending before Congress, the FAA's bill is totally unacceptable. And thankfully, it appears to be dead," Boyer said. "The Senate addressed many of general aviation's concerns in its version, but the imposition of $25 per flight air traffic control user fee would ultimately and inevitably harm general aviation."

"The members of the House Transportation Committee truly listened to our members and their constituents and understood all of the issues confronting general aviation," Boyer continues. "The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 would pay for the badly needed modernization of America's air traffic control system and would provide money to maintain and improve the general aviation airports that are vital to the total system, and it would do so without imposing the user fees that have led to the near extinction of GA in countries like Australia, New Zealand, England, and Germany.

"This is a great bill."

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the FAA funding bill June 28. It will now be considered by other House committees before being sent to the House floor for a vote.

FMI: http://transportation.house.gov, www.aopa.org

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