House Passes FAA Reauthorization Bill

A bill that would reauthorize the FAA at $68 billion over four years and tighten protections for passengers stranded on airport tarmacs was passed Thursday by the House.

The House passed the measure (HR 2881) by a vote of 267-151 while the Senate Finance Committee was preparing to mark up the tax portions of that chamber's reauthorization bill (S 1300).

The late-afternoon Finance markup was derailed, however, when an unnamed senator invoked an often-waived Senate rule that prevents committees from meeting after the chamber has been in session for two hours. The rule is typically waived each day by unanimous consent.

The rule was invoked when it became clear that Trent Lott, R-Miss., planned to offer an amendment in Finance that would authorize some $2 billion in bonding authority for Amtrak.

Lott's proposed amendment was itself a reaction to plans by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to offer his own amendment that would authorize certain railroad funding for New York.

The committee will reconvene Friday morning to finish consideration of the measure.

Before passing the House bill, lawmakers adopted a number of amendments, including a lengthy manager's package that would tighten oversight of foreign aircraft repair stations, cut down on airline overscheduling, establish health and safety standards for flight attendants, and create new protections for people stranded on aircraft left on the tarmac for long periods.

The passenger protections provisions were spurred by high-profile incidents earlier this year, when JetBlue and American Airlines passengers were stranded for hours on parked planes because of bad weather.

Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which contributed the tax title to the reauthorization till, said he expected a debate focused on money. Instead, his committee was inundated with complaints from airline passengers.

"I was a little surprised that when this issue actually came before the full committee, rather than dealing with the question of revenue, I had to deal with the issue of outrage," Rangel said.

As passed, the bill would require airlines and airports to develop plans to provide clean drinking water to passengers and to allow them to deplane following excessive delays. But it does not define what constitutes an excessive delay, rendering that provision all but meaningless. It would allow the Transportation Department to impose civil penalties on airlines or airports that don't adhere to these plans.

The House adopted by voice vote an amendment by Ron Klein, D-Fla., that would require the Transportation Department to investigate more consumer complaints, including flight cancellations, overbooking, baggage concerns and other issues.

An amendment that would order the FAA to study the feasibility of developing a data clearinghouse for wind turbine obstruction of aviation sites was adopted, 418-0.

The House also adopted by voice vote an amendment by Ted Poe, R-Texas, that would require foreign aircraft repair stations to subject their employees to drug and alcohol testing, as is the case for domestic aircraft mechanics.

Thursday morning, the House adopted a rule governing floor debate that had the effect of adding to the underlying bill the text of a financing measure (HR 3539) that would raise the general aviation fuel tax from 21.8 cents per gallon to 35.9 cents per gallon, and the commercial aviation fuel tax from 19.3 cents per gallon to 24.1 cents per gallon. The extra revenue would be dedicated to air traffic control modernization.

Florida Republican John L. Mica, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he could not support the bill because of two labor-related provisions: one that would reopen a year-old contract dispute between the FAA and its air traffic controllers, and another that would change the union status of much of the workforce at Federal Express.

Additionally, the White House has issued a veto threat against the House bill, saying it does not adequately tie the agency's revenues to the costs imposed on the air traffic control system by users.

The administration wants to replace the current system of fuel and ticket taxes with new usage fees, such as per-flight charges based on distance traveled. The administration said such a shift is necessary to fund system upgrades to handle the increasing volume of air traffic.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to reconvene at 8 a.m. Friday in 215 Dirksen.

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