The Senate will likely not finish work this year on legislation that would renew Federal Aviation Administration programs and funding, Sen. John D. Rockefeller 4th, D-W.Va., warned yesterday, signaling a delay in needed aid that airports could use to bond finance improvement projects.
The laws governing and funding FAA programs were set to expire at the end of fiscal 2007, on Sept. 30, but Congress has approved temporary extensions of the laws three times, including the most recent stopgap, which would run through June 30. President Bush is expected to sign that extension before the end of the month when the current extension will expire.
The short-term extensions are intended to give Congress more time to write and enact a new FAA law. But progress on a bill in the Senate has stalled over a disagreement between the Senate Commerce Committee, which sets FAA policy, and the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax issues, in connection with how to pay for the modernizing of the nation's air traffic control system.
If the Senate fails to approve a bill, that will delay negotiations with the House, which approved its bill in September. The two houses must draft a single compromise bill. One provision in the House measure that is supported by airport operators and municipal market participants is a proposal to increase the passenger facility charge to $7 from $4.50. The PFC is a surcharge tacked on to airfares that airports use to pay for airport improvements. Larger airports with high passenger levels typically levy PFCs and often use the revenue to repay bonds issued for improvements.
In May, the Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation Rockefeller introduced that would charge a $25 fee to commercial and high-end general aviation users jet flights. The fee, which is opposed by the general aviation industry, including corporate jets and operators of smaller planes, would raise $400 million over four years. Rockefeller is chairman of the committee's aviation subcommittee.
But the Senate Finance Committee in September approved an FAA bill that did not include the $25 fee, and instead included a raft of provisions to boost FAA funding, such as an increase in the jet fuel tax for general aviation to 36 cents per gallon from 21.8 cents.
Rockefeller, who is also a member of the Finance Committee, contends that general aviation industry's refusal to pay his proposed fee is the reason why a Senate FAA bill cannot be completed this year.
"I find it incredulous that the owners of these aircraft are unwilling to pay a $25 fee ... when their aircraft costs millions to buy and thousands of dollars an hour to operate," Rockefeller said at a commerce committee hearing on Bush's fiscal 2009 budget proposals for air, rail and transportation safety programs. "Based upon the [general aviation] community's inability to compromise I do not expect that there will be an FAA bill this year, I blame it on them, because we can't work it out in the Finance Committee, because they are making all kinds of phone calls, and their owners have all kinds of money."
Rockefeller claims that general aviation, particularly business jets, does not pay its fair share into a trust fund that pays for the air traffic control system.
"The point is that [general aviation planes] are not carrying their weight," he said. "They are two-thirds of the airplanes in the sky at any given moment."
Acting Federal Aviation Administration chief Bobby Sturgell, who appeared before the committee, agreed with Rockefeller and pointed out that general aviation flights account for 16% of the cost of the aviation system, but pay only 3% of that cost.
But Sen. John E. Sununu, R-N.H., said he supports the finance committee's FAA bill, which would increase general aviation's share of the cost by raising the fuel tax, over Rockefeller's fee proposal.
"I oppose that fee ... because it is new, it would have additional administrative cost, I think it would be difficult to oversee, and because we have a system in place for collecting revenues to support this modernization," Sununu said.