Bill aims to speed up air traffic system overhaul

PlanesTransforming the nation’s air traffic system by replacing World War II-era radar with 21st century GPS technology would be accelerated under a bill approved Monday by the Senate.

The $34.5 billion bill funds the Federal Aviation Administration through Sept. 30, 2011. It also addresses a series of safety concerns raised by the crash of a regional airliner last year near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people.

The centerpiece of the bill calls for key elements of the FAA’s NextGen program to be in place at the busiest American airports by 2014. The system won’t be fully in place for noncommercial aircraft until after 2020.
The nation’s antiquated air traffic control system is a major source of airline delays.

The new system is projected to cost the FAA as much as $22 billion through 2025. Airlines would have to spend as much as $20 billion more to install equipment in their planes.

In the long term, the system is expected to save airlines money by allowing planes in crowded air corridors to take more direct routes and fly closer to each other without safety risks, reducing delays, saving energy and cutting down on pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. Pilots will have real time information on the location of other aircraft.

The system is crucial to handling the expected growth in air traffic from about 700 million passengers in 2009 to the more than 1 billion annually by 2023.

The United States lags behind other nations in making the transition to the new technology, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., a key sponsor of the bill. Even Mongolia, he said, is further along.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The bill, passed by a 93-0 vote, contains a provision authorizing the FAA to make grants to airlines to help cover equipment costs. Some airline executives have said that as much as they want the new system, they can’t afford to put it in their planes.

Airlines have suffered repeated shocks over the past decade, including the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the SARS virus, volatile oil prices and the current economic downturn. They have shed more than 158,000 full-time jobs since employment peaked in 2001 and lost an estimated $30 billion to $60 billion in recent years.

Sponsors of the bill labored for a week to reach compromises with senators over amendments. Moments before passage of the bill, the Senate accepted without opposition a Rockefeller amendment containing some of those compromises.

Rockefeller’s staff declined to release a copy of the amendment. However, a list obtained by The Associated Press showed more than a dozen provisions on issues ranging from flights over the Grand Canyon to air quality in airline cabins.

Among the safety measures in the bill is a requirement that FAA update how many hours airlines can require pilots to work and how much rest they must get between work days. Airlines would be required to have remedial training programs for pilots who fail skills tests or make other errors, and programs that use electronic data recorded during flights to spot safety trends before they cause an accident.

The bill also:

  • Raises the minimum number of hours of flying experience an airline co-pilot must have from 250 hours to 800.
  • Bans pilots from using personal electronic devices in the cockpit, a response to an incident last October in which pilots of a Northwest Airlines plane flew more than 100 miles past their destination of Minneapolis while they were working on their laptops.
  • Doubles to twice a year the frequency of FAA inspections of foreign aircraft repair and maintenance stations that work on U.S. planes.
  • Contains a “passenger bill of rights” that would require airlines to provide food, water and other amenities to passengers kept waiting on tarmacs and give them the opportunity to deplane after a three-hour wait.

That would give legal status to Transportation Department rules adopted in December that also limited tarmac waits to three hours and fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for violations.

  • Authorizes $8 billion over two years for airport improvement projects, which supporters said would generate 150,000 jobs.

The House passed a three-year FAA funding bill last year that includes several contentious labor provisions not part of the Senate bill. The House bill would also raise the passenger facility charge, which goes to airports to pay for improvements, from $4.50 per ticket to $7. Differences between the two bills remain to be worked out.

Associated Press writer Jim Abrams contributed to this report.

Source: The Associated Press