OF Funding, ATC, and Veto Threats

As this year’s airport legislative conference attests, there’s a lot on the legislative table.

WASHINGTON — Well, there is funding, be it user fees, ATC upgrades, FAA operations, passenger facility charges, or security. This year’s annual ACI-NA/AAAE Summer Legislative Issues Conference, held just before Congress recessed for August, also discussed that other hot topic du jour, employee screening, along with 9/11 legislation, streamlining, and the NATCA rollback provision, among other reauthorization hot buttons. Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), a member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told attendees in a video, “This time we’re going to have a fair bill, or no bill.” It is the latter that many find cause for concern. On day two, the conference heard directly from U.S. House
members and staffers, who tried to convey optimism.

The summer legislative conference is hosted jointly each year by the Airports Council International-North America and the American Association of Airport Executives.

This year’s plate was full of aviation reauthorization, which must be accomplished by Congress and signed by the President before September 30. Else, the industry suffers through a potential series of continuing resolutions which maintain the status quo, with a significant measure of uncertainty tossed in. At the very least, for this audience, the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration to properly plan and manage its Airport Improvement Funding program virtually comes to a standstill.

Comments Kate Lang, deputy associate administrator for airports at FAA, “If we get four-month extensions, we won’t be issuing grants. We just won’t.”

Current signs are good that AIP will see increases, once a bill is passed, with both Houses offering increases approaching $4 billion a year. FY08 is expected to have a funding level around $3.5 billion, some $700,000 less than the Administration’s proposal, a cause for concern at a time when the President has threatened to veto various budget increases. “There’s a little bit of playing with fire going on,” comments Peter Rogoff, majority clerk for the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, HUD and Related Agencies.

The veto threat by President Bush is of particular concern due to the NATCA provision in the House bill, which calls for FAA to reenter contract talks to rewrite the hard-hitting agreement that Administrator Marion Blakey is perceived to have forced on the controllers union. Holly Woodruff-Lyons, Republican staff director for the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation, cautions that this provision alone could tie up reauthorization, if ultimately approved by both Houses.

PFCS — ‘pop the top off’
The airport groups have pretty much stayed out of the user fee debate and who pays for what in terms of use of the system. They seek only predicatable, stable funding mechanisms. The funding aspect that is their mission, however, is passenger facility charges — raising the cap from the current $4.50 and lifting the FAA oversight mandated by Congress. On the former, the House is proposing to lift the cap to $7; the Senate calls for no increase, but instead for a pilot program that would allow participating airports to set their own limits.

Of particular disappointment, says FAA’s Lang, is the refusal by either House to consider streamling proposals for the program. Airports and FAA agree that the oversight of the program mandated by Congress is unnecessary for a program that has reached a level of maturity.

Says Lang, “We wanted to pop the top off” of what can be done by airports with PFCs, pointing out that such a move would be viewed positively by Wall Street. “Why do we make PFC accounting so difficult?

Lang notes that the PFC regulations in place today were mandated in the early 1990s, when it was assumed that there would be “trench warfare” between airlines and airports over their implementation.

Employee screening, environmental, etc.
Among the other issues discussed at this year’s legislative conference:

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