The House and Senate have kicked FAA reauthorization down the road again, this time extending the agency’s operating authority until Dec. 31. No surprise there, really – the current extension runs out at the end of this month, and there has been little progress in ironing out the differences between the House and Senate versions since the last flurry of talks in July.
The interesting thing about this latest extension is the duration. Congress has given itself another shot at resolving the bill during the lame-duck session after the elections. I have to say, it’s hard to see any of the entrenched positions changing by then. More than likely this will have to be dealt with next year.
One faint glimmer of hope for the bill is that perhaps the elections themselves might change the dynamic – whether the Democrats keep the House or not, tensions could ease somewhat after campaign season. However, on one of the biggest sticking points, lawmakers are divided along regional rather than party lines.
I’m talking, of course, about the slot issue at Washington Reagan National Airport. The Senate is still trying to decide whether to loosen rules restricting the number of beyond-perimeter flights into the airport, but agreement seems a distant prospect.
Some Western senators are pushing for more flights to be allowed beyond the perimeter, particularly lawmakers representing US Airways’ home state of Arizona. However, Senators representing Northern Virginia and the greater Washington metropolitan area are opposing lifting the restrictions.
The current proposal on the table, supported by Senate Commerce Committee leadership, would allow five new beyond-perimeter daily flights for new entrants, and 16 exisitng flights to be transferred from within-perimeter to beyond-perimeter. In theory, this would have a negligible effect on noise and congestion (which is the local concern). However, as someone very smart commented to me, this argument is all about perception – something the proponents of the changes haven’t fully grasped.
The transferring of inside-perimeter flights also worries Senators representing some of the smaller communities served by these flights. However, the proposed solution stipulates that only flights from large hubs can be transferred.
Although there is currently no DCA slots clause in the House bill, House lawmakers are closely following developments in the Senate. Here’s what Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar had to say about the perimeter issue today:
“Unfortunately, since July, the FAA reauthorization bill has been hung up in the Senate, primarily over a provision that would significantly increase the number of long-distance flights at Washington National Airport. The Senate provision was included in neither the House-passed nor the Senate-passed FAA bill, and it is strongly opposed by Members of Congress and Senators who represent the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. They argue it would create a burden on Washington National Airport by creating congestion at terminals and that it would siphon passengers away from Washington Dulles International Airport. I also have concerns that the provision, as written, would unduly benefit the dominant incumbent carrier at National Airport, US Airways.”
Its not entirely fair of Oberstar to put the blame for the impasse on the slots issue. It's far from clear that other major differences between the House and Senate have been resolved -- such as the controversial FedEx labor clause and passenger facility charge increases.
So as you can see, there is still a lot of ink to be spilled before this one is over. And the trouble with all these short-term extensions (16 and counting) is that they becomes a de facto norm, and it’s harder to convince people that urgency is required.