"The new millennium, for aviation, is about to begin," said Phil Boyer, president of the 355,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, after the House passed the FAA reauthorization bill by a veto-proof majority of 319 to 101 on March 15.
The landmark bill (known as AIR-21 or H.R.1000), "unlocks" the aviation trust fund and charts a course for FAA funding and policy for the next three years. The Senate had earlier approved the bill by an 82-17 vote (also veto-proof). President Clinton is expected to sign the bill into law in early April.
"This bill puts the 'trust' back in the trust fund, making it a real source of capital for air traffic control modernization and airport improvements," said Boyer. "No longer will it be possible to block critical aviation projects, piling up a trust fund surplus for other political ends.
"Now we have the resources to modernize our air traffic control system and improve our airports to meet the aviation demands of the new century."
AOPA has been working for over a decade to unlock the surplus in the aviation trust fund. AOPA was a strong supporter of AIR-21. The association rallied its 355,000 members to contact Congress, and Boyer and AOPA Legislative Affairs staff personally worked with members of Congress to gain their support. AOPA also participated in an industry coalition united to unlock the trust fund.
"It was vital grassroots support by groups like AOPA that helped make AIR-21 a reality," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, the prime force behind unlocking the trust fund. "Their efforts played an important part in the passage of this landmark legislation."
The bill authorizes some $40 billion for the FAA over the next three years, increasing the FAA's funding 26 percent in fiscal year 2001 alone.
The legislation unlocks the aviation trust fund by directing that all money collected from aviation excise taxes (on aviation fuel, passenger tickets, and cargo airbills) be spent first on airport improvements and air traffic control modernization. Aviation users will pay some $33 billion into the trust fund over the next three years, with all of that money tagged for the FAA's Facilities and Equipment (F&E) and Airport Improvement Program (AIP) budgets.
Airports will receive a substantial 64-percent increase to $3.2 billion in 2001 and a total of $10 billion over three years. Even more important, the amount of money available for general aviation airports will almost double. Funds will be specifically allocated for improvements to GA and reliever airports in metropolitan areas.
The F&E budget (which covers ATC modernization) will increase 35 percent.
The bill includes many other AOPA-backed provisions to protect pilots' rights and to preserve and enhance general aviation.
Most notable are "Hoover Bill" provisions to protect pilots from overzealous FAA enforcement actions. These provisions allow a pilot to challenge the FAA's emergency revocation of a pilot certificate and seek an expedited hearing before the National Transportation Safety Board. If NTSB decides the certificate action is not a true emergency, the pilot could continue to fly while the case against him is considered.
AOPA, EAA, and a broad coalition of aviation groups representing general aviation, airline pilots, airlines, and the National Transportation Safety Board Bar Association supported the Hoover Bill.
The legislation sets out specific requirements for commercial air tours over national parks or tribal lands. However, it places no restrictions on non-commercial general aviation pilots, allowing them to continue to overfly national parks at responsible altitudes.
The FAA will retain responsibility for airspace management over federal lands. (AOPA was a key member of the National Parks Overflight Working Group, whose recommendations were incorporated into the legislation.)
AOPA successfully lobbied to have aeronautical charting moved from the Department of Commerce to the FAA, where it more logically belongs. On several different occasions, Commerce had tried to stop publication of critical aviation charts (such as WAC charts) because of "budget shortfalls."
Weather is the single most important factor affecting general aviation safety. AIR-21 includes several provisions to improve weather services for GA.
The 35-percent increase in the FAA's Facilities and Equipment budget means the agency finally should be able to deploy modern OASIS computers for flight service stations. OASIS will replace ancient 1970s computer technology with a Windows-based system that allows briefers to easily see and interpret all available information.
A 52-percent increase to the FAA's Research, Engineering, and Development budget should restore funding for general aviation weather research cut by the Clinton administration.
The bill provides money to upgrade automated AWOS/ASOS weather-reporting stations. However, another AOPA-supported provision prohibits replacing existing human weather observers with automated equipment until the equipment can reliably report certain hazardous weather conditions.
Protections for airports and airport environments are also valuable features of AIR-21. One provision, for example, prohibits the construction of new landfills (which attract birds) within six miles of a GA airport.
The bill makes it harder for airport sponsors to convert airport land to non-aviation use, and it puts more pressure on the FAA to enforce "grant assurances," which keep airports open to all users without unjust discrimination.
AIR-21 specifies a significant increase in funding for general aviation airports, and it directs funds specifically to smaller airports. The bill makes AIP grants available for runway maintenance (not just improvement) at GA airports, and it will now be cheaper for smaller GA airports to build and maintain runways for aircraft weighing less than 60,000 pounds. That's because they can now use state highway pavement specifications for these runways, rather than the more specialized, and therefore more expensive, FAA specifications.
Congress again turned back administration efforts to privatize air traffic control or turn ATC into an independent "performance-based organization." The legislation does establish an Air Traffic Control Oversight Board (part of an FAA Management Advisory Council) and designates an ATC chief operating officer approved by the oversight board and reporting to the FAA administrator.
Once again, Congress rejected administration user fee proposals. But the White House claimed, despite these rebuffs, it had gotten "most of what the administration proposed in its aviation bill."
User fees still won't go away, however. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater said, "Unfortunately, the bill does not include all of the management and financial reforms that we requested, such as establishing the user fees that we proposed. We will continue to work with the Congress to institute these reforms through future legislative efforts."
AOPA President Boyer responded, "We will be vigilant against future proposals that would needlessly provoke the imposition of user fees. The aviation community already supports the majority of the FAA's budget through direct aviation excise taxes on airspace users."
March 20, 2000