The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a four–year aviation bill that includes an increase in federal airport construction grants and a hike for passenger fees that finance infrastructure work.

But a provision to reopen the labor contract for federal air traffic controllers drew a warning of a presidential veto.

The bill, which the panel cleared June 28 on a voice vote, would authorize $15.8 billion over four years for the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Improvement Program, which provides grants to help build runways, taxiways and other infrastructure. The bill's AIP allocations would begin at $3.8 billion in fiscal 2008, then rise by $100 million a year, reaching $4.1 billion in 2011. Funds would be subject to annual appropriations. AIP's appropriation for 2007 is $3.5 billion.

Oberstar says 'robust' spending needed for airport infrastructure

The House committee's measure also would raise the cap on passenger facility charges (PFCs) that airports levy, from the current $4.50 per flight segment, to $7. At the current PFC level, FAA estimates the fees collected will total $2.68 billion, with the proceeds going for a variety of airport projects. Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D–Minn.) says, "Robust investment in airport infrastructure is necessary to enhance capacity and combat delays."

The transportation panel doesn't have jurisdiction over taxes, but Oberstar said he would recommend to the Ways and Means Committee that the tax rate for jet fuel used by corporate jets and other general aviation craft be boosted from 21.8 cents per gallon now to 30.7 cents per gal., a 41% hike. Oberstar also is recommending that aviation gasoline taxes be raised from 19.3 cents per gal. to 24.1 cents, a 25% increase.

Fuel taxes are one of the revenue sources for the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which finances FAA's AIP grants and much of the rest of the agency's budget.

Mica calls air traffic controller amendment a 'show stopper'

But there's a cloud over the House committee's bill. By a 53–16 vote, the panel added an amendment would reopen a 1998 contract between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. That amendment "is a show stopper," said Rep. John Mica (Fla.), the panel's ranking Republican, who voted against it.

Soon after the panel approved the bill, an official in the hearing room, presumably from DOT, handed out to reporters copies of a prepared statement from DOT Secretary Mary E. Peters, which said that "the President's senior advisors would recommend that he veto any reauthorization proposal that includes language to alter the existing controller contract or re-open contract negotiations."

The FAA declared an impasse in contract talks with the controllers' union in April 2006 and in September put in place a contract that Peters contends "saves taxpayers more than $1.9 billion" over five years, but NATCA asserts has worsened "a critical staffing shortage," and hurt morale.