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Congress seeks to bridge distance on air-travel bills
March 29, 2011
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  • By Alan Levin
    March 28, 2011

    Consumer protection for airline passengers, funding for airport improvements and the efficiency of the nation’s air-traffic system are among the issues at stake in wide-ranging legislation moving through Congress.

    Separate versions of the legislation in the House of Representatives and Senate contain many provisions that could affect fliers.

    Among them: provisions that would write into law passenger protections from lengthy delays on the tarmac; cuts in federal subsidies to airlines for flying into rural airports; and more options for people who want to fly non-stop from the West Coast to Washington, D.C.

    The bills also could have sweeping implications for the efficiency of air travel. They contain several provisions that would push the Federal Aviation Administration to speed up the introduction of new technology that promises to make flights flow more smoothly.

    The legislation, which sets guidelines for the FAA, expired in 2007. Attempts to update policies for the agency that oversees flight have been blocked since then, most often by fights over labor issues. Leaders in the House and Senate have vowed to move the legislation this year, although bills in the two chambers differ significantly.

    The Senate passed its version of the bill in February. The House bill has been approved by the transportation committee and could come up in the full chamber as early as this week. If the House bill passes, the differences would be worked out in a conference committee.


    •Consumer protection. Following a federal rule enacted last year, the Senate’s bill would require airlines to return aircraft to the gate if a flight is delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours. It also says airports must develop plans for dealing with such lengthy delays. Writing the protection into law makes the protection harder to overturn.

    The Senate bill would create criminal penalties for airport security screeners who distribute images created by body scanners, which peer through clothing in search of weapons or explosives. The Transportation Security Administration, which oversees aviation security, prohibits copying or distributing the images.

    Noting that more airlines are charging passengers for checked bags, the House bill would require a study of the feasibility of requiring airlines to compensate passengers for bags that arrive late.

    •Airport construction. Spurred by the election of dozens of fiscally conservative new members, the House version would cut funding on several fronts, including grants to airports for runway maintenance, safety enhancements and security. The proposal would cut funding to $3 billion a year, a 14% decrease from the $3.5 billion in place since 2006.

    Airports believe that the cuts would reduce their ability to keep up with future capacity demands, says Greg Principato, president of the Airports Council International. The Senate would increase funding to $4 billion a year for airport projects.

    •FAA spending. The House also wants to cut FAA spending to 2008 levels, saving $4 billion over four years, a roughly 7% reduction. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., says the agency could cut that money without jeopardizing air safety or the ongoing program to modernize the air-traffic system over the next decade.

    FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt says uncertainty about FAA funding already has prompted the agency to pause in its efforts to certify new aviation technology and could even slow the opening of aircraft manufacturer plants, thereby reducing jobs.

    The Senate supports giving the FAA $17.5 billion this year, a 16% increase over the House.

    •Rural flights. The House would end federal subsidies to airlines that fly to rural airports that otherwise would not have commercial service. Airports in Alaska and Hawaii would still be eligible for federal subsidies.

    The Senate would keep the program, nearly doubling the funding to $200 million. Senate commerce committee Chairman John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., whose state relies on the flights, vows to keep the subsidy.

    •Non-stop to D.C. Fliers who want to fly non-stop to Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C., would get more flights. The airport currently has a cap restricting long-distance flights.

    The House bill would add 10 new non-stops to or from the West Coast, and the Senate would add 16.

    •Air-traffic modernization. Both bills would set timetables and goals for the FAA to improve the efficiency of flight routes. The effort is linked to the FAA program known as NextGen that will introduce more accurate, satellite-based technology to guide jets in future decades.

    The legislation calls on the FAA to add highly accurate satellite-guided routes into large commercial airports in the next few years, which will trim airline fuel costs and can also reduce delays.

    The Senate would force airlines to equip jets with technology required in the modernization plan sooner than under current FAA guidelines.

    •Cockpit distractions. Both bills would outlaw use of cellphones, laptops and other personal electronic devices by pilots for non-work purposes on the flight deck of an airliner. The proposals were prompted by a Northwest Airlines flight that flew past its destination on Oct. 21, 2009, while the pilots were working on their company-issued laptops.

    Source: USA TODAY
    Date: 2011-03-28