The Senate Commerce Committee today approved by voice vote a comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill that would improve aircraft certification and reform third-class medical requirements, but leaves out the controversial air traffic control privatization measure that has stalled the House bill.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, noted the Senate panel “started with the premise that we would work together and focus on areas of agreement and refrain from the controversial proposals such as the plan for privatizing air traffic control that has got the House product all balled up.”
Nelson noted “continuing chatter” from the House that “somehow there will be a change of hearts and minds in supporting privatization.” But Nelson added he did not think that would happen.
Before the approval of the bill, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) urged the committee to address issues that have plagued NextGen. “We have a crisis with air traffic control in this country in terms of how far behind we are.” She said she is unclear whether proposals such as the user-funded not-for-profit ATC corporation pushed by the House is “the right idea,” but said something must be done on the ATC front. “We are ignoring a serious issue in air traffic,” she said.
Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) agreed that action must be taken and noted the bill requires the implementation of many recommendations related to NextGen from government watchdogs such as the Government Accountability Office and Transportation Department Office of Inspector General. He said that while the Senate bill does not go as far as privatization, “There is an innovative approach [in the House], and we’ll see how that comes out in terms of the progress over there.”
The Senate bill next must go to the full Senate floor for consideration. The Senate Finance Committee also must OK the excise taxes portion of reauthorization.
As work continues on the long-term bill, the Senate is expected to soon consider a short-term extension of FAA’s authorization. The House earlier this week passed a bill to extend the FAA’s authorization through July 15 and the excise taxes through March 31, 2017. The extension, the second such stop-gap measure, had been widely expected since Congress faces a March 31 deadline to act on FAA authorization.
In introducing the extension, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) reiterated that the House long-term reauthorization bill, the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, “represents a profound, transformational reform of our aviation system and a departure from the status quo” and that the extension gave both chambers on Capitol Hill time to continue working on their respective bills.
But the ranking Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), said that because of the ATC privatization provision in the current FAA long-term bill, “we are missing an opportunity to act swiftly and advance a long-term aviation bill…As we know all too well, a series of short-term extensions has very real impacts on all users of the aviation system.”