By Kathryn A. Wolfe, CQ StaffCongressional Quarterly Today
The House passed an FAA reauthorization bill Thursday that would bolster aircraft inspections and passenger protections, despite Republican criticisms that some other provisions could cost thousands of American jobs.
The bill (HR 915), passed 277-136, would reauthorize the agency through 2012. A manager’s amendment was adopted by voice vote that strikes out the bill’s now-defunct fiscal 2009 funding, which has the effect of lowering the overall authorization from $70 billion to just over $50 billion.
A Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee aide said that panel hopes to mark up a companion bill in June. Congress has until the end of September to clear a bill before the current short-term extension expires (PL 111-12).
John L. Mica, R-Fla., ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastrucutre Committee, criticized three provisions in the House bill, including two he said could jeopardize thousands of American jobs.
He targeted primarily a provision that would require the FAA to inspect certain overseas aircraft repair stations at least twice yearly and mandate that workers there pass drug and alcohol tests. Another would cancel anti-trust immunity granted to certain airline partnerships unless it was renewed.
“We can’t leave here and say we eliminated more jobs, and many of these jobs, whether it’s repair stations or the airline industry, are good paying jobs that people need so desperately today,” Mica said.
Jerry F. Costello, D-Ill., questioned Mica’s potential job loss figures, saying that they represent an unrealistically drastic scenario.
“If I thought that would jeopardize the jobs in my district or anywhere in the country I would certainly not be supporting it,” Costello said, noting that he has repair stations in his district. “We have the right … to insist that we have inspections at these foreign repair stations so that we can protect the American people.”
Another provision Republicans criticized would send the FAA and its air traffic controllers union back to the bargaining table to renegotiate their last contract, which has been the source of an ocean of bad blood between the two groups. The same provision was included in last year’s House-passed FAA bill but drew a veto threat from the Bush administration.
Mica said now that President Obama has appointed a special task force to reopen negotiations, the language is not needed. But Transportation Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., said the provision will “keep the heat on” the administration to resolve the issue.
The House turned back, 154-263, a Republican attempt to recommit the bill and immediately amend it to deny Essential Air Service funding to the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria Airport. The EAS program provides subsidies to keep commercial airlines flying into small airports that would not normally be profitable for an airline to serve.
The move was the latest salvo in a series of GOP attacks against the earmarking practices of John P. Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Among other things, Murtha has been criticized for steering some $150 million mostly in earmarked funding to the rural airport, which has only six scheduled commercial flights per day, all to Washington, D.C.
“Should a practically empty airport that has all of six flights per day receive millions in federal funds just to stay open?” asked John Campbell, R-Calif., who sought to deny the funding.
Oberstar called the maneuver an assault on rural America and warned that if members voted to strike EAS funding for one airport, there are 150 other beneficiaries that might be next on the chopping block.
“If by legislative fiat you can say no to funding this community, no to the people in rural America who want access to greater America, then we’re all at risk. This is wrong, this is mean-spirited, vote it down,” he exhorted.
The bill would raise the maximum passenger facility charge for airport improvement projects to $7 from $4.50.
The legislation would give the Transportation Department more leeway to cut down on airline overscheduling, establish health and safety standards for flight attendants, and create new protections for people kept trapped for long periods in planes on the tarmac.
The House also adopted an amendment by voice vote that would require airlines meeting a certain revenue threshold to provide passengers the option to receive flight delay updates in the form of text messages.
Prior to passage, the House adopted an amendment that would mandate a Government Accountability Office study of all commercial pilot training and certification programs. Concern about pilot training has grown following the recent investigation into a deadly February regional jet crash in Buffalo, N.Y. The investigation found that the plane’s pilots were not trained in flying techniques that could have prevented the crash.
It also cast a spotlight on the low pay and long hours worked by pilots on the commuter airlines that serve as feeders for the big airlines, carrying millions of passengers every year.
Source: AIRPORT BUSINESS (CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY)