Long-term FAA bill clears Congress, heads to president

February 6, 2012

The Senate, following up on House action last week, has passed a four-year, $63.4 billion FAA reauthorization bill with no user fees or fuel-tax increases.

The bill, now headed to the desk of President Barack Obama for signing, would give the FAA its first long-term operating authority since 2007, ending a string of 23 stop-gap operating authorization measures.

“AOPA thanks the Senate for approving this long-overdue legislation that provides $63 billion in funding for the FAA through 2015,” said AOPA President Craig Fuller. “By passing this legislation, the Senate has taken a vital step toward providing the FAA with the stable funding needed to continue modernizing our air traffic system, improving our airports, and ensuring that our aviation system remains the safest in the world.”

Senators of both parties expressed satisfaction that the 75-20 vote, which followed House action Feb. 3, will allow the FAA to get back to focusing primarily on long-term program management. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said,“This bill is years overdue. But getting it signed into law will make aviation safer, create jobs, and make sure that small communities have access to critical air service.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), ranking member of the Commerce Committee, added, “No one got everything they thought was important, but I do believe the way we came together preserved the major things we needed to do right.” The agency must still receive annual appropriations from Congress. But the action, coming less than two weeks before the latest short-term bill expires, alleviates concerns about any additional extensions.

AOPA reported Feb. 1 that after the House and Senate ironed out long-standing differences on labor issues, no major disagreements remained to impede the bill, which cleared both chambers minus any user fees or increases in avgas or jet-fuel taxes. A Feb. 17 expiration of the latest short-term reauthorization had added urgency to resolving the remaining issues.

Other provisions of the bill include authorizing funding for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), allowing the Secretary of Transportation to establish an incentive program for aircraft owners to equip with NextGen avionics, and requiring the Transportation Department’s Inspector General to conduct annual audits of the FAA's ADS-B program.

The bill authorized $13.4 billion in Airport Improvement Program funding. Language on through-the-fence operations will ensure that general aviation airport sponsors would not be in violation of federal grant assurances for entering an agreement with a property owner adjacent to the airport to have airport access.

The bill establishes a timeline for issuing improved pilot certificates that are tamper resistant and can accommodate a photograph, digital photograph, biometric identifier, or other unique identifier.

The Research, Engineering, and Development program is authorized $672 million over the four years. The bill would also allow for funding research into the qualification and safe transition to an unleaded fuel. In addition, the bill would require a study on the impact of aviation fuel price increases on the Aviation Trust Fund and GA industry, and call for a plan to decrease operational impacts on airports in the Washington, D.C., Special Flight Rules Area. Two other GA-related provisions include that the FAA require a detailed inspection of ELTs on GA aircraft during every annual inspection and a clarification that volunteer pilots operating charitable medical flights can receive reimbursement for all or part of the fuel costs associated with the volunteer flight.

“AOPA applauds the Senate for approving this important legislation. It has been five long years with 23 legislative extensions of the previous authorization since we have had a long-term authorization for the FAA. The FAA will now be able to continue its work on improving the National Airspace System with certainty,” said Lorraine Howerton, AOPA vice president of legislative affairs. “We look forward to seeing this much-needed legislation become law.”