Glimmers of hope have emerged for a Senate-House agreement on a long-term aviation bill before the lame-duck session ends, but a tight schedule and other hurdles may prove too hard to overcome. If there is no deal on a multiyear measure, yet another extension would be needed.

At stake for construction are new authorization levels for FAA’s Airport Improvement Program infrastructure grants and maybe an increase in the $4.50 cap on passenger facility charges (PFCs), which fund airport projects. FAA estimates that 2010 PFC collections will be slightly less than $2.8 billion.

There have been promising signs about the FAA bill in recent days, including statements by key senators that they will push for a long-term deal in December and a House committee chairman’s comment that he would accept a Senate bill if it has a PFC boost.

But an agreement on a long-term measure is not assured. Todd Hauptli, American Association of Airport Executives’ senior executive vice president, says, “While we’re hopeful, we’re not certain that a bill will get done.”

If lawmakers can pull off a deal on a multiyear FAA measure, it would draw sighs of relief from airport officials, who have weathered 16 stopgap measures since Sept. 30, 2007, when the last multiyear FAA bill expired. Extension No. 16 expires on Dec. 31.

Airport and construction groups strongly support a long-term measure. “We need some stability,” says Jane Calderwood, Airports Council International-North America vice president for government and political affairs. Calderwood adds, “You can’t even plan for six months down the road right now … because you don’t really know what your money’s going to be.”

Senate commerce committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and aviation subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) on Nov. 18 said that they will push for a final agreement on a multiyear FAA bill before the lame-duck session ends. Rockefeller said, “We have relied on too many short-term reauthorizations and stopgap measures. It’s time to get this reauthorization bill passed.”

Passenger Facility Charges

Dorgan said House and Senate negotiators have agreed on reconciling most of the differences between the FAA measures each chamber approved earlier. Funding for AIP grants was not in dispute: Both bills would authorize $4.1 billion for the program in fiscal 2011.

The two bills differed on PFCs. The House version would raise the limit to $7 from $4.50 now. The Senate bill would hold the ceiling at $4.50, except for six to-be-designated airports, which would have no cap.

“We have relied on too many short-term reauthorizations and stopgap measures. It’s time to get this reauthorization bill passed.”
— Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Commerce committee chairman

Outgoing House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) on Nov. 16 said, “I’m willing to take whatever the Senate sends us,” but added, “Well, at least [with] a $1 increase in the PFC.”

Hauptli says, “You have key leaders committed to trying to get something done, but I think some of the [legislative] scheduling issues are going to be above their pay grade.”

Further, he says there is an unresolved dispute over whether to add airline “slots” for long-distance service to and from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

In addition, the Republican Party’s takeover of the House in the new Congress could lengthen the odds for a December deal on a long-term FAA bill.

But Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who is expected to be the new transportation committee chairman, does not seem to have closed the door. An aide says, “If the Senate approves an FAA reauthorization, of course we would want to see what that bill looks like, but Mr. Mica would be willing to work toward completing a long-term bill.”