Congress clears FAA extension

The bill requires 1,500 minimum flight hours for pilots, an increase from 250 flight hours. It also requires pilot training for adverse weather conditions, including icing and high-altitude operations.

The measure also requires the FAA to ensure pilots are trained on stall recovery and upset recovery, and that airlines provide remedial training to pilots who need it.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, said today he’s disappointed that lawmakers haven't agreed on a comprehensive, long-term reauthorization. 

"I’m disappointed a few narrow interests have prevented agreement on legislation that would have allowed us to invest in critical airport infrastructure, modernize our air traffic control system, and create tens of thousands of jobs in the process, among other important measures," Dorgan said. "We need to keep working on that and get it done. I remain confident that we will.”

Virginia Sens. Jim Webb (D) and Mark Warner (D) are opposed to adding any additional long-distance slots at the airport because of concerns that larger planes needed to fly coast-to-coast would create more noise. 

Western lawmakers have pushed for expansion of the airport’s so-called perimeter rule of 1,250 miles. If eased, the airport could see for the first time nonstop flights to cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

Dorgan said 16 slots would be switched to fly outside the perimeter and that the airlines won’t change the planes used for those routes. 

“It’s fine to represent interests in your region but it’s not fine to block this bill,” Dorgan said.  

Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said the safety and pilot training improvements are "a big step forward in improving the safety of our skies." 

"The families of the victims of Flight 3407 have my full support in demanding one level of safety among all air carriers — large and small," Rockefeller said  in a statement. "I am disappointed that a few parochial concerns have stalled progress on a significant FAA package that will support thousands of jobs, strengthen airline safety, modernize America’s outdated air traffic control system with satellite-based navigation — which is sorely needed — and which will fundamentally transform aviation safety," Rockefeller said.

Lawmakers also are still in negotiations over whether to raise the passenger facility charge from $4.50 to $7. The House bill raises the fee, whereas the Senate bill holds it at the current level.

A union issue with FedEx and UPS is still being worked out. The House's FAA bill shifts FedEx ground operations jurisdiction for labor relations from the Railway Labor Act to the National Labor Relations Act. 

The change would put FedEx and UPS under the labor union same rules, allowing FedEx ground employees to organize locally. Under current law, FedEx organizes nationally. FedEx has called it a “bailout” for UPS. 

"FedEx has long supported the important air safety legislation which Congress has now passed," said Maury Lane, director of communications for FedEx, in a statement today.

"We also support Congress' effort to pass a broad reauthorization bill, without extraneous labor provisions, after the summer recess."

The Senate passed a two-year, $34.5 billion measure in March, while the House passed a $70 billion bill that covers 2009-2012 last year. 

Overall, the FAA bill calls for the air traffic control system to switch from World War II-era radar technology to a satellite-based system by 2014 at the busiest airports, and nationwide by 2020. The new system, known as NextGen, would cost the FAA about $22 billion through 2025, while airlines would spend about $20 billion to upgrade their airplanes' computer systems. 

With the numbers of airline passengers growing, the new air-traffic system is expected in the long term to increase safety, save airlines money, reduce delays and cut down on pollution because pilots will be able to fly more direct routes. 

The extension also: 

• Creates a pilot records database to provide airlines with fast, electronic access to a pilot’s comprehensive record;

• Directs the FAA to update and implement new pilot flight and duty time rules within one year to more adequately track scientific research in the field of fatigue; 

• Requires air carriers, within 90 days, to create fatigue risk management systems approved by FAA to proactively mitigate pilot fatigue;

• Requires a study on the effects of pilot commuting on fatigue and provides preliminary results to the FAA to be considered as part of the flight and duty time rule-making;

• Directs the FAA to develop and implement a plan to facilitate the establishment of an Aviation Safety Action Program and a Flight Operational Quality Assurance program by all commercial airlines and their unions;

• Mandates that Internet websites that sell airline tickets disclose to the purchaser on the first page of the website the air carrier that operates each segment of the flight.