DOT, Democratic Lawmakers Spar Over Addressing Aviation System Woes

With airline delays at an all-time high and customer dissatisfaction rampant, lawmakers writing a major aviation bill traded blame Thursday with the Bush administration for failing to alleviate the ills.

After two days of congressional hearings on what to do about aviation congestion, Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters -- fresh from a meeting with President Bush -- chastised lawmakers for discarding the White House's plan to overhaul the way the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is financed.

"In February, we submitted a very comprehensive bill to Congress that would have addressed many of these things," Peters said at a news briefing in which she called on Congress to pass the measure.

But the bill (HR 1356) is all but dead, with members of both parties skeptical about the wholesale changes it would make to the FAA. The administration's revenue plan would more closely tie payments to the air traffic costs imposed by aviation users, to help pay for modernizing the system.

"Congress needs to look at this FAA reauthorization -- I call it 'modernization' -- and work with this department . . . so that our consumers and passengers and citizens won't be inconvenienced," Bush said Thursday.

Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said at a news conference before Peters' briefing that congestion is worsening because the administration won't regulate airlines that overschedule flights.

"This administration has the authority to act," said Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore. "But they have not done that. It's a shame that we have to pass legislation to force them to use their regulatory powers."

DeFazio pointed to provisions in a House-passed FAA reauthorization bill (HR 2881) that would require the agency to consider schedule reductions in particularly egregious cases.

The bill also includes consumer protections, such as requiring airports and airlines to draft plans for how to ensure fair treatment for passengers stranded on tarmacs.

The White House has threatened to veto the measure because it does not hew to the president's proposal for restructuring the FAA's revenue system. The administration plan would replace the current tax on airline tickets with a user fee assessed on airlines based on the plane's size.

Peters said Bush asked her Thursday to come up with market-based ideas by year's end to help alleviate congestion and make the Transportation Department more responsive to customer complaints.

In the short term, Peters said, the agency will improve access to the department's complaint system and improve oversight of chronically delayed flights.

Additionally, the agency has convened a new committee to examine ways to reduce congestion and delays in the airspace around New York City through "market-based mechanisms," such as congestion pricing.

Delays experienced in the New York area can cascade to affect almost 40 percent of the rest of the country.

Democratic leaders on the Transportation panel dismissed the plans as inadequate.

"The administration's proposal contains a good deal of talking and planning but little action to address the delay problem and help consumers in the short term," Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., said in a statement. He added that congestion pricing would ultimately be paid by passengers.

Source: CQ Today Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill. ©2007 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.