The airline business is one of the most volatile industries, and the past three years have illustrated this fact all too well. The price of oil has fluctuated from the $147 per barrel of a roaring economy to the $40 per barrel of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. A major merger was completed and another has been proposed. Consumer issues have been major news. Airlines have cut capacity and instituted a variety of new fees in an effort to make ends meet, and several airlines have not made it.
While it has been a rocky period, some signs point to an improving climate for aviation. The same can be said for our efforts to pass a new comprehensive bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. While it has been a long and winding journey, we have made great progress, and it is time to finish the job.
In January 2007, I took over as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation. Our first order of business was to develop major legislation to reauthorize the programs of the FAA. After a thorough series of hearings and roundtables, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and I introduced H.R. 2881, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007, in the spring. Working quickly, we moved the bill through the full committee, and it passed the House in September. Despite our hope that the Senate would act with similar dispatch, it briefly considered its version but did not pass it, and the 110th Congress ended without a new law and the old one was extended into 2009.
In January 2009, we got right back to work, building on the groundwork of the previous two years and invigorated by the election of a new president. Two events over the next month rocked the aviation community — and country — and underscored the need for a new FAA reauthorization law. On Jan. 15, US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. The professionalism of the experienced crew, including Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, First Officer Jeff Skiles and the veteran flight attendants, brought all passengers to safety, serving as a potent reminder of the need for well-trained, experienced personnel.
Oberstar and I introduced H.R. 915, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009, on Feb. 9. Just three days later, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in inclement weather short of the airport in Buffalo, N.Y., igniting a nationwide debate over the quality of training at regional airlines. While the House passed H.R. 915 in May, the subcommittee also began work on an aviation safety bill, which we introduced in late July and passed in the House in October.
H.R. 3371, the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009, takes important steps to improve pilot training, including requiring all pilots to hold an FAA airline transport pilot license and creating a pilot records database to give airlines better access to pilot information. Importantly, the families of Flight 3407 have been passionate and dedicated supporters of H.R. 3371 and improved safety in general. Their efforts have been instrumental in moving the legislative process forward.
While health care dominated the legislative agenda in the Senate in late 2009 and early 2010, 13 extensions of the FAA law have been approved. After the health care reform bill was signed into law, the Senate finally approved a comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill, attaching the language to a previously passed House Ways and Means bill. The House, in turn, passed a combined version of H.R. 915 and H.R. 3371. Since then, House and Senate staffs have been working through differences in the bills, and great progress has been made. While several significant issues remain to be settled at the Member level, we are — after more than three years — very close to enacting a new, comprehensive FAA reauthorization law.
While this has been a long process, it has not been unproductive, as important issues have been resolved or actively addressed along the way due in large part to being included in the legislation. The air traffic controllers’ contract — long a morale killer for controllers and a serious problem for the FAA as controller retirements accelerated — was expeditiously dealt with by the Obama administration. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt are also moving aggressively to deal with the important consumer issue of long tarmac delays, developing a strict three-hour time limit before passengers must be given the option of getting off of a plane. Long tarmac delays are a focus of the House and Senate bills.
Despite these accomplishments, it is imperative that we take this opportunity to provide much-needed certainty to the aviation industry by passing a reconciled bill. The numerous extensions do not allow the necessary long-term planning of investments at our airports and in technology that is critical to meeting the increased demands our aviation system faces in the coming years. In particular, funding the Next Generation Air Transportation System is essential to moving from radar guidance to satellite guidance and maintaining an efficient, modern system into the future. Making these investments will put people to work across all sectors of the economy, creating engineering, construction, heavy equipment and manufacturing jobs. Final FAA legislation will do this while improving safety, addressing key consumer issues and further developing environmentally friendly technologies and practices. Let’s finish the job.
Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.