The 355,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association says the congressional agreement on AIR-21, the FAA reauthorization bill that "unlocks" the aviation trust fund, is a "big win" that will "benefit aviation."
"Unlocking the trust fund means we can finally move forward with critical air traffic control modernization and airport improvements," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Aviation has languished for three years waiting for an FAA reauthorization bill."
House and Senate negotiators reached final agreement on AIR-21 (also called H.R.1000) late in the evening of March 7. The Senate approved the conference report (which spells out the details of the agreement) late the next day. The House is expected to consider the bill covering FAA funding and trust fund use within a few days.
Boyer had sent a personal letter to all members of the Senate the night before the vote, urging their support for the AIR-21 compromise. And in the weeks before, AOPA members responding to the association's " National Pilot Alert" had inundated the Senate with thousands of letters.
"AOPA-member grassroots effort helped make this agreement a reality," said Boyer.
The deal would mean more than $40 billion for the FAA over the next three years. Just next year alone, the FAA's budget would increase some 26 percent over current funding levels.
It does that by "unlocking" the trust fund with a guarantee that all aviation tax revenues (including interest) will be fully spent, not allowed to accumulate in a surplus. And it restores the original concept of the trust fund as a capital fund to pay for improvements to equipment and airports.
Under the agreement, the FAA's Facilities and Equipment (F&E) budget and the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) will take first priority for trust fund disbursements.
Funds for airports will increase 64 percent to an impressive $3.2 billion in 2001 and total some $10 billion over the next three years.
There is even better news for general aviation airports. The AIP state airport entitlement (which funds GA airports) will almost double to $640 million, from $341 million.
The FAA's F&E budget, which includes air traffic control modernization and navigation technology, increases 35 percent.
"The bill authorizes enough money to finally deploy modern flight service station OASIS computers, something that has been promised to general aviation for almost 20 years," said Boyer.
The agreement also provides for important congressional oversight of FAA modernization programs. If the FAA can't effectively use all of the trust fund money authorized for modernization, Congress can shift more money to airport improvements.
While the bulk of the FAA's capital programs are to be paid for from the aviation trust fund, the remainder of the FAA's budget (including its operations budget) will be funded from general tax revenues that are subject to the normal appropriations process.
Of the three-year, $40 billion FAA budget, $33.3 billion will come from the user-financed aviation trust fund and up to $6.7 billion could be appropriated from general tax revenues.
"The bill does more than provide dollars, it protects airports and pilots' rights as well," said Bill Deere, AOPA vice president for legislative affairs and the association's chief lobbyist. "We fought hard for two years, but we got just about everything we asked for."
The legislation includes "Hoover Bill" provisions to protect pilots from overzealous FAA enforcement actions.
There will be greater protection for GA airports. The bill will make it harder to sell off airport land and puts more pressure on the FAA to enforce AIP "grant assurances" that keep airports open. Another provision will make it cheaper to build GA runways.
As AOPA requested, aeronautical charting will be moved from the Department of Commerce to the FAA, where it logically belongs.
"Getting this Senate-approved agreement on FAA reauthorization is a direct tribute to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott," said Boyer. "He never gave up on the bill, and he kept bringing people together until there was a compromise.
"However," the AOPA president cautioned, "because of the concessions made to reach this agreement, the aviation community will have to remain vigilant for future proposals that depend on new taxes or user fees."
The 355,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world's largest civil aviation organization. More than one half of the nation's pilots are AOPA members.
March 9, 2000