FAA Funding Bill Reaches Finish Line

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After four years of wrangling and one shutdown, the beleaguered Federal Aviation Administration will soon get a bill of its own. The bill would give it long-term funding for airport construction, expansion and NextGen — or modernization of the air traffic control system from one based on radar to one based on GPS satellites. Congress has resolved long-simmering issues about unionization, not to mention landing slots and rural subsidies.


Congress is close to signing off on a plan to update the nation's air traffic control system and otherwise try to improve airports and air travel.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, the bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration marks the first time in some five years the agency will have a long-term blueprint.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: There have been 23 short-term temporary bills authorizing the FAA since 2007. A spat this summer when lawmakers were unable to come to terms on one of the short-term measures forced a two-week long partial shutdown of the agency. That stoppage led to some 4,000 federal employees being furloughed, shut down work on runway construction projects, and cost the government an estimated $350 million in uncollected airline ticket taxes.

So, it's noteworthy that Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate were able to reach agreement on a long-term bill. Florida Republican John Mica chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN MICA: When people say that Congress is dysfunctional or can't get things done, this is an example that you can do it.

NAYLOR: What lawmakers did was write a bill that provides for some $63 billion for the FAA through 2015. Among the bill's highlights, it authorizes roughly $1 billion a year for the NextGen program, which will modernize that nation's air traffic control system from one based on World War II era radar to one based on GPS satellites. It also creates a new job, a chief NextGen officer to oversee the project.

The bill continues a program called Essential Air Service that subsidizes flights to rural airports, although at a lower funding level than previously. It also authorizes more non-stop flights from Washington's Reagan National Airport, an issue of great concern to members of Congress, especially those from western states.

Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia chairs the Senate Commerce Committee. He says everyone had to give up something to get a measure they can all live with.

SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER: All of us at this table, let's be clear about that, have made big compromises of some things that we feel very, very strongly about. Not amoral compromises, not wicked compromises, but we've had to pull ourselves away from things that we cared about deeply.

NAYLOR: One of the things that Democrats cared deeply about was a provision that helped lead to last summer's partial shutdown, a ruling by an obscure federal agency that made it easier for unions to organize airline workers. Republicans wanted to overrule the provision in the FAA bill, but Democrats balked.

In the end, Democrats got their way. But Republicans did get a provision raising to 50 the percentage of workers who have to vote to win representation. Several unions wrote to lawmakers objecting to the provision. West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall says it doesn't belong in the FAA bill.

REPRESENTATIVE NICK RAHALL: In my opinion, it has no place in this legislation. But the nature of the beast is what it is. I just hope that by reaching this compromise we have not compromised the future of representation efforts among rail workers and aviation workers together.

NAYLOR: The measure also puts into law some, but not all, of the Obama administration's executive orders aimed at giving passengers some recourse if their flight has been delayed or stuck on the tarmac. Still, lawmakers were happy that even if they didn't get everything, they got something. And that the spirit of compromise, a lost art on Capitol Hill, made a brief reappearance.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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