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Tech, Facility Upgrades Necessary

On Feb. 9, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and I introduced H.R. 915, the FAA Reauthorization Act. This important legislation will provide the Federal Aviation Administration with the resources and support to fulfill its missions while investing in improvements to our air transportation system. The bill builds on our legislation from the 110th Congress, which passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

A new president and Congress provide a fresh start for this effort. The American people want us to focus on important issues and get results, and we will again move quickly to pass the bill in the House and will work with our colleagues in the Senate to enact a final version as soon as possible.

The issues here have been well-covered. The Subcommittee on Aviation has conducted a thorough process of drafting legislation to reauthorize the programs of the FAA. Through a series of hearings and roundtables, the subcommittee heard from stakeholders from across the aviation industry regarding their concerns and priorities for the legislation. While the legislative calendar is crowded, the groundwork on this legislation has been done and there is no reason not to finish the job.

H.R. 915 includes a historic level of funding for the FAA, including $16.2 billion for the Airport Improvement Program, $38.9 billion for operations, $13.4 billion for facilities and equipment, $1.35 billion for research, engineering and development, and $200 million for the Essential Air Service program, which guarantees airline service to a certain number of smaller communities.

Combined with an increase in the passenger facility charge from $4.50 to $7, these increases will help build the capacity necessary to meet increased passenger projections. Despite the economic downturn, it is still estimated that our aviation system will handle a billion passengers annually within the next decade. Our facilities need to be improved and technologies upgraded as part of the transition from radars to satellites envisioned for the Next Generation Air Transportation System.

In addition to funding, H.R. 915 will keep this process moving in the right direction by making the Joint Planning and Development Office — the entity charged with coordinating NextGen activities — more effective by elevating its director to the status of associate administrator for NextGen within the FAA. This position would be appointed by, and report to, the FAA administrator and would be a voting member of the Joint Resources Council, providing a greater ability to prioritize NextGen investments.

Our bill maintains a serious focus on safety, requiring foreign repair stations to be inspected at least twice a year while addressing maintenance inspector levels and air traffic controller retirements. Work rules imposed by the FAA after it declared an impasse in contract negotiations three years ago led to a wave of controller retirements and has had a serious negative impact on controller morale. H.R. 915 would mandate binding arbitration in such labor negotiations, including new contract negotiations for the controllers.

Provisions have also been added to the bill to make changes to the regulatory regime for airline safety. An investigation conducted last year by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee brought to light a too-close relationship between the FAA inspectors and the airlines they oversaw, resulting in lax safety enforcement. Among the new provisions is the creation of an independent Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office in the FAA to receive and investigate safety complaints.

Importantly, H.R. 915 maintains strong passengers’ rights language to make the air travel experience more pleasant and to give passengers more information about flight cancellations and delays. The bill requires airports and airlines to file emergency contingency plans with the Department of Transportation to make certain that passengers have access to food, water, medical care, clean restrooms and proper ventilation. Noncompliance with this requirement would result in civil fines. DOT must also establish a consumer hotline to handle complaints, increase complaint investigations and provide information updated monthly regarding diverted and canceled flights.

The bill is also sensitive to the need to protect our environment and conserve energy. The aviation industry is a leader in environmental innovation, constantly working on reducing fuel use through best practices and research into alternative fuels. Our bill builds on this strong environmental record by instituting new airport land management policies, continuing efforts to develop cleaner and quieter engines and airframes and requiring the FAA to build environmentally sustainable air traffic control facilities. An example of the latter is the recently completed tower at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

Outside of politics, Members of Congress don’t necessarily have a lot of shared experiences. However, most are frequent air travelers. We see on a weekly basis that our air transportation system has pressing needs. This is comprehensive, responsible legislation that will allow the FAA to meet the challenges it faces. Moreover, it represents a chance for Congress to show it can work together to meet the needs of the nation. The time has come to get the job done and reauthorize the FAA.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

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