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Begich Praises Final Passage of Comprehensive FAA Bill

Bill invests in Airports, Essential Air Service, Takes Steps to Modernize Air Traffic Control

Washington, D.C.- A measure vital to aviation in Alaska, with funding for runway and air traffic improvements and protections for rural communities dependent on air travel, passed the Senate today with the support of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.

The Senate voted 75 to 20 to send the landmark aviation legislation to the President Monday night, approving the Conference Report on the FAA Reauthorization bill (H.R. 658).  Begich, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee which wrote the bill, supported the Conference Report. It sets aviation policies and authorizes funding for air traffic controllers, building runways, and the “NextGen” modernization of the nation’s air traffic control system from radar to a more accurate satellite tracking system.

“I am thrilled we were finally able to pass a long-term FAA Reauthorization,” Begich said.”This legislation has major significance for our state in terms of construction dollars and supporting Essential Air Service and other programs.”

Begich helped craft parts of the four-year reauthorization bill as a member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

The last comprehensive authorization of the FAA expired in 2007.  Congress has passed 23 short-term extensions of the FAA’s funding authority while trying to reach agreement on a multi-year reauthorization.  The Senate passed its FAA Reauthorization bill in February of last year, but the legislation had stalled since the spring when the House leadership refused to appoint conferees to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills.  The stalemate ended when House leaders agreed to abandon a non-aviation related provision which would have overturned a recent decision on union organizing rules.

Begich noted many provisions in the legislation are significant to Alaska. 

“With 82 percent of Alaska communities not on the road system, aviation is a lifeline for our state,” Begich said.  “This legislation makes needed investments in our airport infrastructure, enhances aviation safety, and provides additional consumer safeguards for airline passengers, all without any new user fees on general aviation.” 

The bill authorizes over $13 billion in airport improvement project funding nationwide  over the next four years, with millions of dollars for Alaska.  The funding will create and sustain tens of thousands of construction jobs building airport infrastructure for the 21st century.  The legislation also accelerates the transition to NextGen air traffic control.  The technology at the heart of NextGen, called ADS-B, was pioneered in Alaska as part of the Capstone Program. 

“We’ve seen first-hand the safety benefits of using ADS-B technology in Alaska.  It’s time to deploy this technology across the nation,” Begich said.

Funding for the Essential Air Service (EAS) program was also left intact, ensuring 44 rural Alaska communities will continue to be served by the EAS program. During Senate consideration of the FAA bill last February, Begich successfully led opposition to an amendment offered by Sen. John McCain which would have terminated the EAS program. The subsidy is worth about $13 million annually for Alaska.

An important Begich amendment cosponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and supported by Congressman Don Young exempts the intrastate transportation of compressed oxygen and other oxidizing gases from thermal overpack requirements established by the Pipelines and Hazardous Material Safety Administration in 2009.  The overpacks are heavy, expensive, and not practical for use in smaller aircraft common in Alaska.  The overly burdensome rule has threatened the ability to ship medical oxygen to rural hospitals and clinics.  To maintain an equivalent level of safety, the provision requires that each cylinder be fully covered by a fireproof blanket, that cylinders be transported on cargo-only aircraft, unless no cargo-only service is available to a community.

Another Begich provision in the bill directs the FAA to expand operating opportunities in the Arctic for small unmanned aircraft used for research.  Last month, Begich sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta urging the agency to consider locating an unmanned test range in Alaska.

Other significant policy provisions include:

  • Orphan Earmarks – Cosponsored by Sen. Begich, this amendment rescinds aviation earmarks if less than 10% of the earmark has been spent nine years after the earmark funding was appropriated.
  • Passenger Bill of Rights – Requires airlines to provide adequate food, water and lavatory facilities for passengers while delayed on the tarmac. 
  • Winter Construction Priority – Directs FAA to give priority review to aviation construction projects in cold weather states with shorter construction seasons.
  • Volcanic Ash Avoidance – Directs the FAA to develop improved systems for aircraft notification and avoidance of volcanic ash.

Prior to a vote on the Conference Report, Begich spoke on the Senate Floor.  “This bill is a shining example of what this Congress can accomplish when we put our differences aside and get down to legislating,” Begich said.

 

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