Courtesy Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority
The multi-year authorization bill provides $13.4 billion over four years for airport grants. Its expected to prompt airports to move on delayed projects.

After being stuck on Capitol Hill for more than four years, a long-term aviation bill at last has been cleared for takeoff. The measure authorizes a total of $63.6 billion over four years for Federal Aviation Administration programs. That figure includes $13.4 billion for the agency's Airport Improvement Program. AIP helps to finance runway, taxiway, apron and other infrastructure projects.

Final congressional approval came on Feb. 6, when the Senate passed the bill on a 75-20 vote. The House had approved it three days earlier. The legislation next goes to the White House for President Obama's expected signature.

Because of a protracted House-Senate standoff on a new long-term FAA bill, airport agencies and construction firms that pursue aviation projects have had to operate under a series of 23 stopgap FAA authorizations since September 2007, when the last multiyear FAA bill expired.

That long stretch of getting funding in short installments gave airport construction planners fits and caused them to delay or shelve construction projects. That picture should improve once the bill is signed, observers say. Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors highway and transportation division, says, "There are a lot of airport projects that are going to go out to bid."

Under the new bill, AIP authorizations will be $3.35 billion a year, which equals the program's 2012 appropriation but is a 5% cut from the 2011 level. Noting the reduction, Jane Calderwood, Airports Council International-North America vice president for government and political affairs, says, "I don't know if you're going to see a huge construction boom. But [for] projects that have been put off and needed to be done, they'll actually be able to schedule them, bid them and start them—which will be a nice change."

AIP is particularly important to small hubs and reliever and general-aviation airfields. FAA's latest AIP annual report, released last October, showed that small airports received 66% of the program's dollars; large and medium hubs got 31%. AIP aid also accounts for a larger share of small airports' overall capital budgets compared with budgets at big airports, which have a greater ability to float bonds.

The final AIP funding is partway between the $4 billion per year that the Senate recommended in the FAA bill it passed in February 2011 and the $3 billion a year that the House included in the measure that it approved last April.

Airport officials were disappointed that lawmakers who worked out the final agreement on the FAA bill didn't adopt the Senate's AIP level.

Another industry disappointment was that House and Senate negotiators kept the limit on passenger facility charges (PFCs) at the current $4.50 level. Airports had backed an increase, to $7. PFCs are another important revenue source for airport infrastructure projects, with 2011 collections of $2.7 billion, FAA estimates.

The main reason for the lengthy delay on a multiyear bill was a House-Senate fight over a 2010 National Mediation Board (NMB) rule that changed requirements for airline and railroad workers' unionization elections. The NMB rule was seen as a plus for organized labor. The House-passed 2011 FAA bill would have abolished the rule, but last year's Senate-approved version would have left it untouched.

There were disputes over other issues, including assistance for air service to rural airports and adding takeoff-and-landing slots at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport for flights to western cities.

Things hit bottom in July, when the House and Senate couldn't agree on even a short extension. That sparked a two-week halt in more than $750 million in airport projects and a furlough of about 4,000 of FAA's 47,000 employees.

What broke the stalemate was a Jan. 20 deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to modify the NMB regulation. That agreement cleared the way for House and Senate conferees to settle several other remaining issues.

"[After 23 stopgaps] at some point you say enough is enough," said the lead House negotiator, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.). The top Senate conferee, commerce committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), said, "It's been a work of … I don't know if I'd say 'art,' but I'd say a 'work,' that's for sure, to get it done. But it is done."