RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This week, we're looking at the challenges facing the airline industry in this country, and one of those issues is technology. The technology guiding commercial airplanes is more than 40 years old. Congress is working on legislation to change that by providing funding for a major upgrade, but the bill has been stalled in Congress for nearly two years. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.
AUDIE CORNISH: People come from all over the country and all over the world to visit Capitol Hill. So the halls of Congress are an easy place to find frustrated travelers.
Ms. DIANNE DITMERS(ph): I'm Dianne Ditmers from Beatrice, Nebraska.
CORNISH: And what is the most frustrating thing about air travel?
Ms. DITMERS: The waiting. When you have to reschedule, and you waste hours of your limited vacation to be waiting on an airplane, is definitely the most frustrating.
CORNISH: These days, nearly a quarter of all flights are late. But there is a way to reduce delays that's been in the works for years, and it uses technology that you might be familiar with.
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Unidentified Man: Please drive to highlighted route.
CORNISH: The Federal Aviation Administration wants to phase out radar and roll out a satellite-based air-traffic control system known as NextGen. It's not unlike GPS used in cars.
Air-traffic controllers and pilots would have instantaneous information on the location of any plane at any time. Its supporters say that means planes could fly closer together, making more room in the sky for additional flights and fewer delays. But it will cost the government up to $20 billion to update its air-traffic control operations, and the airline industry another 20 billion for new equipment and training.
Some airlines are already spending money on upgrades to be ready for NextGen, which is scheduled to be up and running by 2025. But so far, Washington hasn't anted up the cash the FAA needs to modernize.
Representative JIM OBERSTAR (Democrat, Minnesota): We're behind because the Bush administration refused to put the money forward to make those investments and to move the system ahead.
CORNISH: Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar heads the House Transportation Committee. He rejected the Republican administration's attempts to revamp the funding system for the FAA. The FAA currently relies mostly on excise taxes on jet fuel and tickets. The Bush administration wanted to add a system of user fees on takeoffs to provide a steady stream of funding for NextGen. Commercial airlines love that because it would shift some of the cost to smaller planes. Needless to say, those smaller aviators hated the plan.
And House and Senate Democrats also disagreed on which way to go. At one point last year, lawmakers agreed on a $70 billion proposal that funded the air-traffic control upgrade by raising jet fuel taxes and doubling the passenger fee. It passed in the House, stalled in the Senate, and left all sides frustrated.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): I'm sick of it.
CORNISH: That's West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, speaking at a recent hearing.
Senator ROCKEFELLER: I'd very much like to catch up with Mongolia on our air-traffic control system, but we haven't been able to do that yet. The challenge I want to pose to the witnesses today and to the aviation industry is to find a way to work together to make this happen.
CORNISH: Commercial airline executives are also eager to move along.
Here's Joe Kolshak of United Airlines, which went ahead and upgraded planes in anticipation of NextGen.
Mr. JOE KOLSHAK (United Airlines): The old adage is build it and they will come. We've come, and they haven't built it.
CORNISH: Kolshak says this year, United is retiring more than 100 aircraft that cost them $20 million to equip with technology they never used.
Mr. KOLSHAK: It's very hard for me to go to the CFO of the company and ask for tens of millions of dollars for equipage when it's not going to be required and more importantly, I will not gain the benefit for another 10 or 15 years.
CORNISH: The big airlines still support takeoff fees to create a dedicated stream of funding for the new air-traffic control system. They say it's time for smaller aircraft to pay more of their fair share. That's put the general aviation community of smaller planes and corporate jet owners back on guard.
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CORNISH: Just head out to Maryland's Frederick Municipal Airport, and you'll find the headquarters for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. It overlooks an airfield of nearly 200 parked Cessna and Cirrus single-engine planes with brightly colored tails. It's where the group's president, Craig Fuller, is keeping a close eye on where all of this debate is going.
Mr. CRAIG FULLER (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association): We got a very big hint in President Obama's budget. On the budget summary, back on page 131, footnote number 5…
CORNISH: A very close eye. The Obama administration assumes that in a few years, the FAA could start earning $7 billion a year from the kind of fees pitched by the Bush administration.
Mr. FULLER: That is a great concern to us. It kind of re-engages a debate that frankly, has slowed down the progress to getting modernization of the air-traffic control system.
CORNISH: Fuller's group wants to stick with the current system: jet-fuel taxes. They argue that commercial airlines get the fullest use of the air-traffic control system, and they should bear the brunt of the cost for upgrading it.
And back in Washington, Senator Byron Dorgan, who chairs a subcommittee on aviation, says he is inclined to stick with jet-fuel taxes as well.
Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): I feel like most everybody shares a common goal here. They say, let's get this done. And because of that urgency, I think we can find a way to provide the financing for this that moves it ahead.
CORNISH: The House is moving forward with legislation similar to what it passed last year, and some of the issues that dragged down the legislation could return. Those include a passenger bill of rights, a ban on cell phones in flight, and labor issues with traffic controllers.
Dorgan says the Senate is writing its own bill, and will be holding another round of hearings this spring.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.
MONTAGNE: Do you have any ideas on making airline travel better? If so, you can submit them for an airline passengers bill of rights - to our Web site at npr.org.
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