Legislation to reauthorize Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs has climbed an important rung on the ladder to enactment due to House approval of a five-year measure that includes a big increase for FAA airport grants.

The bill, which the House passed on July 20 on a bipartisan 351-69 vote, drew praise from construction, engineering and airport groups, especially for its $20-billion allocation for FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which finances runways, aprons and other infrastructure.

The House bill’s main architect, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.)., called the measure “a must-pass bill.”  

Graves said that the measure “is vital to America’s airport infrastructure and to our economy and to the future of American leadership in aviation.”

Airport Grants: First Hike in Almost Two Decades

The $4-billion annual authorization is a 19% hike from the $3.35-billion-a-year mark set in the present FAA measure, which became law in 2018. 

Sean O'Neill, Portland Cement Association senior vice president for government affairs, said in an interview that the AIP boost is the first for the program in nearly 20 years. "We're very excited to see that increase," O'Neill said.

James V. Christianson, Associated General Contractors of America vice president of government relations, said in a July 17 letter to House leaders that the AIP funding levels “will help support high-paying construction careers while improving the traveling experience for millions of Americans.” Christianson added that the funding “will help reduce congestion on the runway and ensure more on-time flights.”

The new House-passed bill’s overall price tag is $108 billion, according to a July 17 Congressional Budget Office estimate.

The authorizations in the bill would be subject to annual appropriations.  

Congressional lawmakers must approve a new FAA bill by Sept. 30, when the current law expires.

Graves said that if legislators miss the Sept. 30 deadline, important programs would "cease to function." That is an apparent reference to a provision in the bill for a five-year extension of aviation excise taxes, which feed into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. That fund, in turn, helps finance AIP and other programs.

Legislators and infrastructure advocates are aiming for a five-year bill. But as the deadline draws near, a stopgap authorization measure would not be out of the question.

Senate Bill Seems on Hold

Following the House’s action, attention turns to the Senate. Leaders of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on June 12 introduced a $107-billion, bipartisan five-year reauthorization bill.  

But in a surprise move, on June 15 committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) postponed a scheduled session to vote on the bill. The hangups were not related to the infrastructure provisions, but to issues dealing with such topics as pilot training requirements and whether to increase the number of takeoff and landing slots designated for long-distance flights at Ronald Reagan National Airport.

As of July 20, the Senate FAA bill was still in a holding pattern. Senate Commerce panel aides did not respond to ENR requests for an update.

Other Construction-Related Provisions

Besides hailing the House bill’s AIP funding levels, industry officials highlighted some more-targeted provisions.

O'Neill cited the five-year reauthorization of the Airport and Airfield Pavement Technology Research Program. He says the reauthorizing of that program "will build on previous work to advance applied research to aid in development of safer, more cost-effective and more durable concrete and asphalt airfield pavements."

AGC's Christianson pointed to language allowing price-adjustment clauses, which, he said, “will ensure that runway projects are not unnecessarily delayed during inflationary times.” 

Officials at the American Council of Engineering Cos. welcomed a provision broadening eligibility for AIP funding to include airport terminal projects.