As Congress returned to work following its August recess, debate still continued over the FAA reauthorization bill, also called Vision 100. That bill would set the agency's priorities and funding levels for the next four years. The bill, which AOPA supports, would provide more than $14 billion for airport construction, including funds earmarked specifically for general aviation airports. It makes changes to the "pilot insecurity rule" to protect the rights of pilots, creates new penalties to prevent Meigs-like airport closings, and requires the federal agencies to review airspace restrictions still plaguing GA pilots.
The bill also prohibits privatizing the air traffic control system for the four-year life of the legislation, although there is an exception that allows the FAA to continue operating current "contract" towers (towers staffed by contractors rather than FAA employees). It also gives the FAA the option to look at contracting out some additional 69 existing VFR towers. That provision is turning into a stumbling block.
AOPA Legislative Affairs staff is continuing contacts on Capitol Hill to explain that, while AOPA would have preferred that the bill declare all of air traffic control "inherently governmental" (and thereby eliminating all possibility of privatization), the total benefits of the bill to general aviation outweigh the concern over the "qualified" anti-privatization language. (See AOPA President Phil Boyer's editorial in the October AOPA Pilot magazine.)
Meanwhile, the administration has again weighed in with a September 8 letter from Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert noting that failure to pass the bill before the end of September would have "serious ramifications" including furloughs of some FAA employees and the freezing of some airport construction projects.
Mineta also said that the contract tower provision of the bill was a "compromise that offers new statutory protection to nearly all federal air traffic controllers, while providing the FAA appropriate flexibility to strategically manage the nation's airspace." The contract tower program has been operating for some 20 years. "Contract towers are staffed by highly qualified controllers who are required to have the same certification and meet all of the same safety regulations as federal controllers," Mineta said.
But that provision of the bill has been the subject of an intense lobbying and media campaign by the controllers union. And at least one senator has threatened a filibuster if that provision remains in the law.
Mineta has issued his own threat. In his letter to Speaker Hastert, he said that if Congress limited the contract tower program or prohibited the government from contracting out services other than air traffic separation and control, "the President's senior advisors would recommend he veto the final bill."