Congress Finally Gets Moving on a Bill to Reauthorize the FAA After Way Too Many Wasted Years

I never thought we’d ever see the day come when Congress could actually agree on something, but sure enough, it appears to have happened. After more than 20 extensions of the old authorization which officially expired last decade, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is on its way to being reauthorized by Congress. It’s about freakin’ time.

Pigs Fly, Hell Freezes, and Congress Reauthorizes the FAA

Congress is responsible for reauthorizing the FAA every few years. That reauthorization sets funding levels for a variety of projects and it sets priorities. So, when Congress can’t stop jerking around, the FAA sits and spins, waiting to do the work it needs to do until Congress lets it.

There have been a variety of hold-ups over the years, but a compromise has finally been reached. Yesterday, the Senate approved the bill that the House had already passed. You can read the entire mind-numbing 374-page bill on your own, but I thought I’d go over some highlights.

NextGen is Coming (Title II)
The biggest victory for absolutely everyone is a solid plan to finally implement “NextGen” air traffic control. There was even some acceleration of the program here. Without getting into details, NextGen will eventually replace the existing air traffic control system with something more modern. It will ultimately allow for more direct routings, fewer delays, and greater levels of safety.

On a related note, the redesign of the airspace surrounding New York City and Philly will also push through thanks to this bill. That means more efficient routings and fewer delays in the most delay-prone region in the US.

Minor Cuts to Essential Air Service (Title IV, Subtitle B, Section 421)
For those who have been closely following the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, there were some cuts there, but as usual, the cuts ended up being pretty minor and irrelevant to most. The new rule is that if an airport in the lower 48 states receiving EAS funding boards fewer than 10 people per day, it will lose funding UNLESS there is no other medium or large hub (defined by the FAA as having at least 0.25% of boardings in the US) within 175 miles.

Of the 109 airports in the Continental US that received EAS funding in 2010, 36 board fewer than 10 people each day. Pretty big chunk, right? Not so much. Only 9 of those are less than 175 miles from a medium or large hub airport, so the impact is minor. (Cities on the chopping block are Jonesboro, AR; Kingman, AZ; Merced, CA; Athens and Macon, GA; Hagerstown, MD; Bradford and Oil City/Franklin, PA; and Jackson, TN.)

More Perimeter Exemptions at Washington/National (Title IV, Subtitle A, Section 414)
One change that will appeal to DC travelers is the expansion of the perimeter rule exemption. As you might know, flying from Washington/National is limited to airports within 1,250 miles except for a handful of slot exemptions that can go further. This reauthorization will add 8 more roundtrip slots that can go beyond the perimeter.

Half of those must go to new entrants or “limited” incumbents who have very little service already. I assume we’ll see Alaska, JetBlue, Frontier, Southwest, and Spirit vie for those. For the other four roundtrips, the big guys can get the slots, but they can only get 1 roundtrip each and they have to convert an existing in-perimeter slot to use it. I’m quite interested to see how that might work. Maybe United wants to fly to San Francisco, but other than that, I imagine the airlines mostly want to use the slots to go to cities they already serve with existing perimeter exemptions.

Beyond the above changes, the airlines have to be really happy with this bill. They had several victories:

  • No increase in the $4.50 cap on Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) that airports can levy. Airports were looking for an increase to $7.50. Airport improvement funds also stay flat despite an effort by airports to see that increased.
  • No rules requiring inspections of foreign repair stations were mandated. Some groups were hoping to require inspection for safety reasons. The legality of that was questionable, and it would also likely reduce the attractiveness of outsourcing.
  • No restrictions on joint ventures or alliances. Some were pushing for expiration of immunity with periodic reviews required to maintain it.
  • The 3 hour tarmac delay rule was not put into law but will just remain a DOT regulation (which is easier to get changed). It is, however, now required that emergency contingency plans are filed for dealing with these types of problems, however. That’s a good thing.
  • In a nod to the fight over unionization, this bill requires unions to get 50 percent of potential members to sign a card for election, up from 35 percent. This is at best a very minor victory for airlines, but I honestly don’t think it matters much at all.

Beyond that, there are a bunch of odds and ends in the bill. Things like banning pilots from using personal wireless devices in the cockpit and regulating the carriage of musical instruments show just how deep into the weeds this can get.

As usual, the bill also puts out requirements to study a lot of different things. No action required, but just studying. This includes a study on alternate ways to charge for PFCs outside the ticket price, a study of air quality in aircraft cabins (long overdue, if you ask many flight attendants), a study of the tarmac delay rule, a study of cell phone use on airplanes, and a study looking to increase intermodal travel. I imagine most of these studies will lead absolutely nowhere.

In the end, this is long overdue, and it will help get a lot of important work moving, in particular that relating to NextGen air traffic control.

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