Senate Commerce leaders eye FAA boost

Program designed to transform the ground-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based system might get more funding as part of the economic stimulus bill.

Senate Commerce Committee leaders might seek to add funding to the economic stimulus package to begin modernizing the nation's air traffic control system, as uncertainty continues over the timing and chances of a multiyear Federal Aviation Administration modernization plan.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas -- who led the Aviation Subcommittee in the last Congress -- "are in agreement that it would be an appropriate place to put in the stimulus bill some beginning help" for FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System, Hutchison said.

The agency's program is designed to transform the ground-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based system.

While details -- including the amount of money -- are being worked out, Rockefeller said, "I don't think you have to put in a tremendous amount."

In justifying its inclusion in the stimulus, Rockefeller said, "It is mass producing in the way of work. It's desperately needed."

The funding comes as lawmakers this year will renew their attempt to approve a multiyear FAA modernization bill that fell victim to a Senate filibuster last year. Lawmakers agreed to extend aviation contract authority and taxes after that bill collapsed and need to do so again before the extension expires at the end of the March.

While leading Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee want to do another short-term extension to keep pressure on lawmakers to finish a bill, the Senate might look to extend funding and taxes until at least the end of the fiscal year. "I think that depends a bit on what gets into the stimulus package," Rockefeller said. Hutchison wants a two-year extension. "The FAA administrator should be able to come in and get his or her feet on the ground and be able to know what the priorities are and state of the agency is," Hutchison said.

While the Senate bill last year was thwarted over the inclusion of extraneous highway funding and a political spat over limiting amendments, this year's FAA modernization debate will include some of the same aviation policy pitfalls. This includes the push by House Democrats to require FAA and the air traffic controllers union to go to retroactive, independent binding arbitration to settle a long-fought dispute over wages. While Hutchison said this would be a nonstarter with her and Rockefeller, she noted that the Obama FAA can reopen the talks with an independent arbitrator without legislation.

While Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have not settled on an FAA administrator, it is widely expected that this administration will be friendlier to labor interests than its predecessor.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Democratic leaders will introduce a bill very similar to the four-year $66 billion bill from the last Congress and plan to hold an initial hearing on FAA modernization Feb. 11.

Last year's Senate debate was marked by contrasting views on how to narrow the difference between what airlines and general aviation contribute to the modernization effort. Rockefeller initially pushed for a $25 per flight surcharge for private planes but dropped the idea before reaching a deal with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus that increased the general aviation fuel tax by 65 percent.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is expected to take over the gavel of the Aviation Subcommittee and it is unclear whether his close ties to general aviation in his sparsely populated state will make the funding debate easier or tougher this time.