The legislation, which DOT dubs "Flight 100" to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight, was transmitted to Capitol Hill on March 25. It authorizes funds for the Airport Improvement Program construction grants and other Federal Aviation Administration programs for the 2004 through 2007 fiscal years.

The $3.4 billion the bill provides annually for AIP represents no increase over the level authorized for 2003 by the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, AIR-21's full name. But actual AIP appropriations for 2003 were about $20 million less than the $3.4-billion authorized amount, because Congress imposed a small cut on AIP and most other federal programs in the omnibus spending package it passed in February.

Airport groups weren't happy about DOT's funding recommendation for AIP. While pleased that AIP wasn't cut, "We're obviously disappointed that they have not sought to increase the funding levels," says Todd Hauptli, senior executive vice president for he American Association of Airport Executives. "We suspect that this is an internal compromise within the [Bush] administration, because clearly the [DOT] and the FAA understand the need for dramatically increased investment in infrastructure....And we fully expect that when Congress enacts its final version...the funding levels will be significantly, if not dramatically, higher than what the administration has proposed."

At a briefing for reporters, a DOT official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the bill would reduce the balance in the Airport and Airway Trust Fund to $1.1 billion in 2007, from $4.6 billion now. Another senior DOT official said the measure would not increase existing user fees, including passenger facility charges.

DOT also is proposing changes in the way AIP money is distributed. The bill would boost small airports' share of AIP aid to 66%, from the current 63%. The FAA's discretionary grants also would rise to 46% of the AIP total, from 34% now. A senior DOT official said the increase in discretionary grants would let the agency focus more money on "large projects of national significance."

At the Senate commerce committee, which will take the lead on AIR-21 reauthorization in that chamber, staffers were reviewing the DOT proposal, a panel spokesperson says, but declined to comment further.

he Dept. of Transportation has sent to Congress a proposed successor to AIR-21 that would freeze the federal airport grant program at $3.4 billion for the next four years.