Senate approves FAA bill but fight with House looms

The Senate’s version avoids contentious language, including a provision making it easier for FedEx workers to unionize.

The Senate Monday approved a long-sought Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization that now heads into potentially lengthy and divisive talks with the House over pro-union and other differences.

The 93-0 vote showcased the popularity of the two-year $34.5 billion bill, which is full of safety, environmental, technology and other updates.

The final vote came after senators agreed to shelve a fight regarding long-range flights to and from Reagan National Airport in Washington. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., withdrew an amendment to allow air carriers that have direct flights to large cities within 1,250 miles of National to divert up to 15 round-trip flights to large cities beyond that perimeter.

Ensign argued the 1,250-mile perimeter rule -- established in 1966 -- is outdated and was intended to boost the then-newly opened Dulles International Airport. He also said it is an issue of fairness regarding flights to and from Reagan, the closest airport to Capitol Hill. "Should just the East Coast and the Midwest have access?" he asked.

The amendment would not have increased the number of Reagan flights overall, but Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said it would mean bigger planes and more passengers, resulting in more air pollution, noise and traffic problems. "There are physical constraints at Reagan National Airport that cannot be ignored" and rules governing the number and distance of flights to and from there "were carefully crafted to take that into consideration," Webb said in prepared remarks.

It would also mean diverting up to 75 shorter-range flights which "would not only have a direct impact on the cities that stand to lose the routes they currently have, but it would also have follow-on effects to flights in smaller markets, as well as flights" at Dulles and Baltimore international airports, he said.

Senate Commerce Committee leaders from both parties praised the amendment, which they worked out with Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and others, and said they will try to address the issue in talks with the House. The amendment was "a reasonable way forward" and a "balanced approach," Commerce Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller said.

The Senate bill, intended mainly as a placeholder to give the administration more time to develop a longer-term strategy for modernizing the nation's air traffic control system, avoided most contentious language.

This includes language in a three-year FAA bill the House passed last year making it easier for FedEx workers to unionize, a provision strongly backed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar and other pro-labor Democrats. Senate leaders sought to distance themselves from the House bill by using as a vehicle an unrelated House tax bill instead of the House FAA product to overcome an initial filibuster led by both Tennessee Republican senators. FedEx is headquartered in Memphis.

The differences between the House and Senate bills "are pretty big," Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison said. "So I think we're going to have a job cut out for us that means we're not anywhere close to being finished yet."

The Senate bill includes a "passenger bill of rights," which is largely incorporated in a Transportation Department rule limiting tarmac delays. Passenger rights advocates say the bill is needed because that rule could be changed at the discretion of the Transportation secretary. The bill also moves up from 2025 to 2018 the target date for air carriers to install modern avionics equipment.