The commercial airline industry scored a victory Wednesday when a Senate panel voted to protect a proposal for redistributing the cost of overhauling the nation's air traffic control system.
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee gave voice-vote approval to legislation (S 1300) to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration at $65 billion through fiscal 2011, after defeating an amendment that would have removed a provision to create a new $25-per-flight surcharge.
The airlines see the proposed surcharge, which would be paid by any plane using controlled airspace, as a way to ensure that high-end business jets and other general aviation interests shoulder a fair share of remaking the nation's antiquated air traffic control system.
Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and John E. Sununu, R-N.H., offered the amendment that would have struck the surcharge from the bill. The amendment was rejected, 11-12.
If the surcharge becomes law, the money collected would be placed directly into a new trust fund that could be used only to pay for modernizing the air traffic control system. Piston-engine planes or turboprops operating outside controlled airspace would be exempt. The committee said those aircraft represent 90 percent of general aviation.
General aviation interests say the provision is unnecessary, arguing that the current system of excise and ticket taxes works fine and that the bill would essentially create corporate welfare for airlines.
Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was the swing vote on the doomed amendment. He waited until other members had voted before casting the deciding "nay."
Despite his vote, Stevens said he thinks "there is a bit of unfairness" in terms of which flights would have to pay the surcharge. Earlier in the markup, he said he was concerned that the bill would encourage Alaskans -- many of whom rely on aviation as a regular means of travel -- to switch back to piston-engine planes, which are not as safe as turboprops. However, he said he voted the amendment down in the interest of moving the measure to the floor.
John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, chastised business aviation interests for being reluctant to pay more for usage of the air traffic control system. He suggested that if Congress cannot enact the surcharge or another new fee, it may instead have to put new restrictions on the use of airspace.
"Deal with that. Think about that," he said.
In what has become commonplace in FAA reauthorization bills in recent years, lawmakers adopted, 12-11, an amendment that would increase the number of slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Flights to destinations 1,250 miles beyond the airport's perimeter -- generally to Western states -- would be increased from 24 to 36 daily, and flights within the perimeter would be increased from 20 to 28 daily.
The panel also adopted by voice vote a manager's amendment that made a number of changes and additions, including expanding the types of customer complaints the Transportation Department must investigate to include flight cancellations, overbookings and lost luggage.
The FAA's current authorization (PL 108-176) expires in September. Senators expressed concern that it might be tough to find floor time for the bill before then.
The Finance Committee must mark up a piece of the bill dealing with aviation fuel taxes. Rockefeller warned that Finance is not likely to raise fuel taxes as a solution to the problem of updating the air traffic control system.
"If you expect the Finance Committee to raise fuel taxes . . . then wait a long time," said Rockefeller, who is a member of that panel.