Facing a deadline, President Obama has signed a measure to extend Federal Aviation Administration programs, including airport construction grants, through September 2017.
The legislation, which the president signed on July 15, gained final congressional approval on July 13, when the Senate passed it by a strong 89-4 vote. The House had cleared it two days earlier. Enactment came hours before a previous stopgap measure was due to expire.
Under the new statute, FAA funding continues at 2016 levels. FAA's Airport Improvement Program construction grants are frozen at this year’s $3.35-billion authorization, subject to annual appropriations.
That amount is less than construction and airport industry officials had hoped for, particularly because the FAA bills cleared earlier this year by the full Senate and a House committee called for increases in airport infrastructure grants.
Industry officials had preferred to see a multiyear reauthorization; however, as the July 15 deadline drew nearer, it was increasingly clear that a stopgap was coming.
In a press conference after the July 13 vote, Senate commerce committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said, "I had hoped for a longer bill, but there are issues that both sides wanted to litigate further."
For example, Thune said Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the commerce committee's top Democrat, would like to discuss passenger facility charges in a future FAA bill. PFCs are another key revenue source for airport infrastructure. The new bill keeps the limit on PFCs at $4.50 per flight segment, a level that has been in place since 2000.
The new extension is the product of a bipartisan agreement, announced on July 7.
The Associated General Contractors of America is pleased that negotiators struck a deal before the July 15 deadline and that the extension runs through September 2017, spokesman Brian Turmail said via email. But he added, “We’re disappointed the funding level remains static.”
Turmail said, “There are huge airport infrastructure needs that should be addressed, and we will be working to address those funding needs as Congress considers a longer-term measure.”
The legislation also contains policy provisions, including language dealing with unmanned aircraft, or drones. For example, it bars drone operators from interfering with responses to emergencies, such as wildfires.
It also establishes new ways to detect and deal with unauthorized unmanned aircraft flights near airports and other “critical infrastructure,” according to a summary from House and Senate committees.
Other provisions seek to improve aviation safety and security and speed up screening lines at airports.
The lawmakers who crafted the compromise stopgap are Thune, Nelson, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), the top Democrat on the transportation panel.
In a joint statement, they said they “are also committed to working together on a longer-term reauthorization that includes other important reforms benefiting all passengers and Americans who depend on a safe aviation system.”
The extension buys them about 14 months to work on that longer legislation.
One tough issue in that future bill will be Shuster's proposal to spin off FAA's air traffic control operations into a non-governmental entity. That provision was in the FAA bill that his committee approved in February but isn't in the new stopgap.
Thune said he is open to new ideas but said the air traffic control spinoff is "a very heavy lift in the Senate because there are members on both sides [of the aisle], at this point, who are skeptics."
Story updated on July 16 with enactment of the legislation.