February 9, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
The Senate Finance Committee reported out an FAA reauthorization bill Feb. 8, with Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) describing the action as a “solid step” toward a return to long-term authorization of the agency, its modernization programs, and the Airport and Airways Trust Fund that pays for them.
“As we work to modernize our airways, the fund’s reauthorization is long overdue,” Baucus said in a statement at the opening of the committee session. “The last long-term reauthorization of the Trust Fund expired in 2007. Since then, Congress has extended the Trust Fund 17 times. These short-term extensions have hindered the ability of airports to engage in long-term planning. That’s no way to run a railroad. Or an Aviation Trust Fund.”
A $34.5 billion reauthorization bill passed the Senate 93-0 last year but expired at the end of the session without becoming law. New reauthorization legislation was introduced Jan. 28.
The bill moved forward by the Finance Committee includes the same proposed increase in GA jet fuel taxes from 21.9 cents per gallon to 35.9 cents to fund modernization as the 2010 bill.
A provision in the bill would hedge the Airport and Airway Trust Fund against insolvency by requiring “that not more than 90 percent of the expected AATF revenues are appropriated each year in order to protect against overly-optimistic revenue projections.” Those projections are based on early revenue projections from the preceding fiscal year and can be inaccurate. The amendment was inserted by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
The bill would create an air traffic control system modernization account in the Airport and Airway Trust Fund that would receive $400 million per year “for expenditures related to modernization and implementation” of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).
Another provision would allow the use of tax-exempt bonds for purchase of airplanes “equipped for and exclusively dedicated to providing acute care emergency medical services.” The bond financing now only applies to helicopters. The amendment was added by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, also expressed satisfaction that a bill was moving ahead promptly.
“Last week during our hearing on the Airport and Airway Trust Fund I said I was going to help you get FAA Reauthorization passed, and I’m glad, less than a week later, I have that opportunity,” he said in an opening statement.
The Finance Committee’s bill will now become an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill sent to the Senate floor after its introduction Jan. 28 by Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The Senate’s early action on FAA reauthorization was welcomed last week by AOPA Vice President of Legislative Affairs Lorraine Howerton as a sign that it would be a high-priority item in the new legislative session.
The continuing resolution under which the FAA is now operating expires March 4.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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