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Long-Term, Short-Term Challenges Are Ahead

Unfortunately, like nearly all industries in the U.S. and around the world today, the aviation industry is experiencing a slowdown. Unlike many others, though, the airlines have been struggling for a while because of last year’s high fuel costs.

Long before the September economic meltdown, there were cuts in our domestic capacity and many jobs were lost. In 2008, carriers eliminated more than 22,000 jobs and eight airlines went out of business.

The U.S. general aviation industry is unique in the world and has grown tremendously in its more than 100-year history. But general aviation is also facing challenges as orders for new planes decrease, leading to layoffs. The sale of aviation gas is down. The number of private pilot certificates issued in 2008 was down 6 percent.

Upgrading our nation’s aviation infrastructure and modernizing our air traffic control system will provide needed short-term and long-term growth for our commercial and general aviation users. Just last month, the American Society of Civil Engineers lowered its grade for the condition of our aviation system to a D from the previous D-plus as part of its annual report card on the nation’s infrastructure.

On Feb. 9, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Subcommittee on Aviation Chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) introduced H.R. 915, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. This bill is basically identical to the bill passed by the House in the previous Congress, with some modifications.

While we were able to work together on a bipartisan basis last Congress as we prepared a bill for introduction, that was not the case with H.R. 915. Unfortunately, during the 110th Congress, as the bill moved through the committee and on the floor, certain provisions were adopted that precluded my supporting the bill — although I continue to support the overall goals of increasing funding for aviation infrastructure, modernizing our air traffic control system, improving safety and continuing environmental progress in aviation.

I hope that as H.R. 915 moves through the process, we can work together constructively to reach agreement with our Senate counterparts and our new administration and come up with a proposal we can all support.

This leads to the question of timing and when the bill moves forward. Understandably, since the reauthorization is long overdue, there is interest in moving a bill quickly. But as I urged at a Feb. 11 Subcommittee on Aviation hearing, I believe we should take time to give administration officials an opportunity for input. They are our partners in this effort and will be responsible for implementing the policies and programs enacted. If we act in haste, we may actually end up prolonging the process as the new administration will want to weigh in once it appoints personnel and reviews its positions on major issues.

It is worth noting that the FAA has been without a confirmed administrator since September 2007. The Senate did not act on the nomination sent up by then-President George W. Bush and, while the acting administrator did the best job he could under trying circumstances, it is essential that we have a confirmed FAA administrator who has the weight and authority to lead the agency. I am heartened to hear that progress is being made on this front.

H.R. 915 will provide significant improvements in aviation infrastructure, with funding increases for grants to airports and FAA facility and equipment improvements. One of the most important efforts under way is NextGen, a 20-year effort to modernize our air traffic control system from an antiquated ground-based system to a satellite-based system that will reduce congestion and improve safety.

Chairman Costello and I have worked together to hold the FAA’s feet to the fire to encourage visionary thinking and management of this huge task. I’m not sure we are there yet, but we will continue to cooperatively work together to be sure that all the stakeholders are involved and that big- picture thinking is going on rather than focusing on individual systems.

Safety, the environment and consumer protection are the other major themes of the FAA Reauthorization Act. Until the tragic crash of a commuter plane outside Buffalo earlier this month, we had not had a fatality in commercial aviation in more than two years. The crash shows we must not let down our guard and always seek to improve safety.

Like many industries, aviation has done much to decrease emissions and make other environmental improvements, but the industry knows that it will be called on to do more — particularly as Congress takes up climate change legislation. Various provisions in H.R. 915 will encourage development of cleaner engines, lower energy use and utilize better ground management to reduce aviation’s impacts on our land, air and water environment.

While we can all agree on these proposals, there are several that remain controversial, and I anticipate there may be thorny issues to resolve in a conference with the Senate. I would note that at least one labor issue can be addressed by the administration working with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to try to resolve the current contract dispute. This would eliminate one of the biggest sticking points we face.

As we embark on our reauthorization efforts, much has changed in our world since the House passed its bill in September 2007. We have a new administration. We are in one of the most perilous economic times we have faced. The aviation industry is struggling and we must be sure not to put up unnecessary barriers to its ability to survive these troubled times. We have an important job ahead of us.

Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) is ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

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