Congress Sends Aviation Bill to President; House, Senate Strongly Approve Three-Year $40 Billion Plan
By Kevin McCarty
The U.S. House of Representatives March 15 voted 319-101 to approve a $40 billion investment plan for the nation's aviation system, with the measure now heading to President Clinton for his signature. The Senate acted on the legislation, the "Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century" (H.R. 1000) on March 8, voting 82-17 for three-year legislation which substantially increases federal funds for airport construction and programs of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Webb added further that "This agreement is not just about making sure these dollars are spent on aviation needs, it is about building a safer and more efficient national aviation system for the 21st Century."
Webb, who has worked closely with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (PA) and other leaders in the Congress, expressed the appreciation of the Conference and its members for their work on AIR-21. "The nation's mayors applaud the leadership of the many leaders in the House and Senate who crafted this agreement and in the process have strengthened our commitment to the nation's aviation system," he said.
Enactment of AIR-21 is one of the Conference's top legislative priorities for the 106th Congress. Webb had also made a call for increased aviation investment part of his "Agenda for America's Cities" that was presented at the Conference's 68th Winter Meeting.
As chair of the Conference's Transportation and Communications Committee, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who led the mayors' efforts over the past two years to secure enactment of the legislation, praised the many leaders in Congress for their work on AIR-21. "This investment in our nation's airports and aviation system will help secure our future economic prosperity," Campbell said. Campbell, who oversees the world's busiest passenger airport, joined with Tulsa Mayor M. Susan Savage earlier this month before a House panel to urge Congressional action on the legislation.
Investment in Airports to Rise
This increase in AIP funding means that next year entitlement grants to the nation's 'primary' airports (airports with 10,000 or more passenger per year) will double, funds available to cargo airports will double, and additional funds will be available for discretionary grants for airport improvements and noise mitigation. Other changes in the AIP program will strengthen the national system by delivering minimum funding to smaller airports. The AIP program funds airport construction, runways, noise mitigation and other elements of local airport capital plans.
Local Fee Authority Expanded
Capital Funds Assured
This predictability in future funding levels, both for AIP entitlement grants and for AIP discretionary funding commitments, is extremely important to local airports, particularly those who are undertaking major capital projects. Service Expanded/Competition Promoted While increased capital funding will help many airports increase capacity to promote more competition, AIR-21 includes a number of specific provisions to help communities with underserved airports improve service and lower air fares. The agreement directs U.S. DOT to establish a new pilot program, up to 40 communities nationwide, whereby the agency would work with underserved airports to improve air service. This program is limited to non-hub or small hub airports that meet certain criteria.
The bill also established a new incentive program to improve jet service to underserved markets by assisting commuter airlines in purchasing regional jets. Participating carriers that receive assistance in the form of secured loans, loan guarantees, and other credit support for the purchase of equipment would be required to provide service to underserved markets. Finally, it makes changes in slots rules at certain airports to increase access and promote more competition.
Aviation Safety/FAA Reform
Finally, the legislation includes numerous provisions affecting the operations and activities of the Federal Aviation Administration. One such change is the establishment of a new management board, a new body that will be charged with overseeing the air traffic control modernization program. House, Senate Debate Focuses on Bill's Benefits Speaking during House debate on the agreement, Chairman Shuster said, "The greatest aviation system in the world is hurdling toward gridlock and potential catastrophes in our skies, and this bill will make those skies safer, reduce flight delays, and increase competition by modernizing our air traffic control system and improving our airports."
Representative James L. Oberstar (MN), the Ranking Minority Member of the House Transportation Committee, talked about what AIR-21 means to the nation. "AIR-21 begins to address the needs of our aviation system. This bill will ensure that the attention and focus our interstate highway system has received over the years is extended to aviation. As DOT Secretary Slater has said: 'Aviation will be to the 21st Century, what the Interstate was to the 20th.' As we did in the 20th Century, it is time to meet the challenges of the new Century," he said.
Citing the importance of the legislation to the economy, a point often emphasized by the nation's mayors, House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John J. Duncan, Jr. said, "Aviation is the cornerstone of our nation's economy. Everyone, even people who never fly, benefit from a strong aviation system."
During his remarks, Shuster also discussed the provisions allowing local airports to increase PFCs. "We are returning to local government, to local elected airport authorities, this decision. It is not a decision being made here in Washington. It is one that lets them make that decision. Beyond that, these standards should allow the FAA to process PFC applications expeditiously with first undertaking a lengthy rulemaking," Shuster said.
Senator Slade Gorton (WA), who led the Senate effort on the bill as chair of the Aviation Subcommittee, also spoke to the PFC provisions during the Senate floor debate. "Another provision which will stimulate competition and help bridge the funding gap that currently exists is an increase in the cap on the passenger facility charge. This provision gets to the heart of my guiding philosophy, which is to give local officials more decision-making power," Gorton said.
Another Senate aviation leader, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (WV), expressed the need for the legislation in this way. "We have fallen behind. Unless we get started immediately in the effort to modernize our air traffic control system, to fix our airports, we stand a very good chance of new being able to catch up, never catching up to the curve, much less getting ahead of it."