May 23, 2011 By: Rep. Nick Rahall
America has the safest and most efficient aviation system in the world. Last year alone, despite difficult economic times, 713 million passengers traversed the skies on U.S. airlines, and that number is expected to grow this year. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that the airlines will carry more than a billion passengers a year over the next decade.
As demand increases, so does stress on the system. Increasingly, people and products are trapped on tarmacs because we are using air traffic control technology that harks back to an era when disco was king.
Congestion caused by obsolete technology is not a new problem. In fact, it dates back to the beginning of the Jet Age. Airport manager Mel Bakersfield, one of the main characters in Arthur Hailey’s famous 1968 novel “Airport,” said it best: “We have broken the sound barrier but not the ground barrier.” That was the prevailing view in 1968. Unfortunately, after 43 years of progress, it is still true today.
Without a doubt, the surest pathways to opportunity and success are America’s railways, roadways and runways. But we run the risk of jeopardizing our economic growth and our nation’s global competitiveness if we continue to allow congestion to clog these arteries of commerce. Upgrading and modernizing our aviation system will create jobs, ensure products make it to the market quickly and keep our economy moving.
The FAA desperately needs the tools and resources to keep pace with the projected growth. The last long-term FAA reauthorization act expired Sept. 30, 2007. And despite the critical role aviation plays in our daily lives, Congress has not been able to enact a long-term bill; instead, it has passed a series of short-term extensions.
We need a long-term bill that not only modernizes our aging air traffic control system and airport infrastructure through investment but also creates and protects American jobs. We came very close to enacting a job-creating bipartisan bill last year that would have met that goal. Unfortunately, the House is likely to consider a 19th extension because the bill that passed the House in April is littered with controversial poison pills that are stalling negotiations with the Senate.
Beyond the fact that the Republicans’ bill would choke off investment in our aviation system at a time when investment is needed most, there are two provisions, in particular, that I believe pose a potential death knell for the passage of the bill. The Republican FAA bill would deny a voice to aviation and railroad workers and would break the commitment made to rural communities to ensure all Americans have access to air travel.
When Congress deregulated the airline industry in 1978, we sent a message to Americans in rural communities that the nation’s aviation system was not just for part of America but for all of America. In reauthorizations enacted since deregulation, Congress committed to fund the Essential Air Service EAS program, which provides subsidies to air carriers for providing air service to and from selected small communities that would not, absent the subsidies, receive service.
EAS links rural communities to the global system of commerce. It carries their goods to market, and it brings families together. Rural communities have literally grown up around EAS, and Congress has an obligation to ensure the program remains viable and successful. As longtime aviation proponent Norm Crabtree used to say, “The airport runway is the most important Main Street in any town.” Particularly in small, rural towns, EAS investments create and support local jobs – serving not only as a lifeline but as an engine of growth and economic opportunity.
Unfortunately, the House-passed bill proposes to break the promise with rural America and contemplates two Americas: an America wealthy enough to sustain regular air service, and rural America, where people have to drive sometimes hundreds of miles to have basic access to the nation’s aviation system. By cutting off this critical lifeline, Republicans are telling rural Americans that FAA now stands for “Find Another Airport.”
I was severely disappointed that they chose to put partisan politics above the flying public by killing a program that has enjoyed wide bipartisan support.
The House FAA bill also would repeal a federal rule finalized last year that provides for fair union representational elections by ensuring that votes for and against union representation among airline and railroad workers are counted fairly and democratically. Just as congressional elections turn on the will of the majority of those who voted, union representation elections should reflect the will of the voters.
A provision to deny a voice to working Americans simply has no business being in FAA reauthorization legislation. It has nothing to do with safety. It has nothing to do with improving our air transportation system. And it has nothing to do with making air service more efficient. Rather, it is a lightning rod of controversy – part of the Republicans’ concerted assault on collective-bargaining rights.
At the end of the day, planes and the flying public should not be partisan priorities. Aviation policy is one area where Congress has historically come together for the common good. Let us strip these partisan poison pills from the bill and enact a long-term, bipartisan FAA bill that will create jobs and keep our economy moving throughout the 21st century.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.