An agreement on a bill to provide operating authority for the Federal Aviation Administration over the next four years and to boost the agency's air traffic modernization effort was reached Tuesday by House and Senate negotiators, culminating a five-year struggle that included a partial shutdown of the agency.
The bill authorizes $63 billion for the FAA through the 2015 budget year. It includes compromises on several difficult issues that divided lawmakers along party lines and by region, including air service subsidies for rural communities, safety regulation of cargo shipments of lithium batteries, and rules governing the formation of airline and railroad unions.
The last details of the agreement were hammered out behind closed doors over the past week. Negotiators met Tuesday afternoon to congratulate each other on reaching what they said was a major victory, and to receive a copy of the final bill.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told lawmakers involved in the negotiations he wanted them to sign the agreement by the end of the day. Final passage of the bill by the House and Senate is expected sometime in the next two weeks.
The FAA's long-term operating authority expired in 2007. The agency has continued to limp along under a series of 23 short-term extensions, but its ability to commit to decisions on major acquisition programs that extend over many years, like air traffic modernization, was hindered by the uncertainty over how much it could spend and by a lack of direction from Congress.
"Now we're going to have four years of stability in this industry. It's a huge accomplishment," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
A copy of the agreement isn't expected to be available until late Tuesday, but congressional staff who briefed reporters said key portions include:
_ Funding authority for FAA's Next Generation air traffic modernization program at about $1 billion a year, roughly the same as the past two years. The FAA is in the midst of moving from an air traffic control system that's based on World War II-era technology to one based on GPS technology.
_ Tweaking of the Essential Air Service program which subsidizes air service to rural communities. The government spends about $200 million a year on the program now; that will drop to about $190 million a year. Subsidies for service to communities that are within 175 miles of a hub airport and average less than 10 passengers a day over the course of a year would lose service. If that rule were applied today, about a dozen communities would lose subsidized service.
The program will also be limited to the 150 communities that now receive subsidized service. No new communities will be allowed to enter the program. The compromise spares Morgantown, W.Va., a priority for Rockefeller. The community would have lost its subsidies under a formula crafted by House Republicans, but opposed by Rockefeller and other key Senate Democrats.
A partisan standoff over a House GOP attempt to cut 13 cities from the air subsidies program and to make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize resulted in two-week, partial shutdown of the FAA last summer. More than 4,000 FAA employees were furloughed, work was halted on more than 100 airport construction projects and the government lost an estimated $350 million in airline ticket taxes.
_ A requirement sought by House Republicans that the Department of Transportation follow the same safety standards for the shipment of lithium batteries by air as those set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency. The requirement blocks a proposal by the department that would have imposed even tougher standards on the handling and packaging of the batteries, requiring they be treated as hazardous cargo. The batteries are used cellphones, laptops, watches and in countless other products.
Studies show batteries that are damaged, overheated or packaged incorrectly can ignite. Fires caused by the batteries burn extremely hot and are difficult to put out. Pilots unions strong oppose the international standards, but an array of industries who ship projects containing the batteries as well as cargo airlines had predicted the transportation department's rules would have cost them billions of dollars. As part of a compromise, the FAA would have the authority to impose emergency regulations on lithium battery shipments if the agency can point to an example where it has been proven that the batteries were the cause of a fire in flight.
A recent FAA study predicted that bulk shipments of the batteries will cause the crash of one cargo plane every other year. The batteries are suspected of being the source of a fire aboard a United Parcel Service 747 that crashed near Dubai in 2010, killing both pilots.
Rockefeller and his House counterpart, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., emphasized the bill is a compromise in which no one got everything they wanted.
Among those disappointed by the bill were airline passenger rights advocates. A three-hour limit on airline tarmac delays and other passenger protections sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, were eliminated during negotiations. The Obama administration has already done virtually the same thing through new regulations, which were opposed by the airline industry.