Senate passes $34.5 billion FAA bill

The Senate on Monday passed a $34.5 billion measure, by a vote of 93-0, that would upgrade the nation's aging air traffic control system, limit tarmac delays for passengers and increase taxes on several areas within the airline industry. 

The bill, which funds the Federal Aviation Administration through September 2011, 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 bill, which will have to be ironed out in a House-Senate conference, raises an additional $276 million in revenue from the expansion of several taxes. 

The measure sets the general aviation jet fuel tax rate at 36 cents a gallon, up from 22 cents. That is expected to raise about $113 million through 2014. Private business jet charters would see taxes increase from 4.4 cents a gallon to 36 cents, and they would pay as an a 14-cent surtax on fuel, which is expected to raise $107 million through 2014. 

In addition, planes weighing 6,000 pounds, which were previously exempt from the taxes, would have to pay into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, raising about $56 million over 10 years. Under the Senate bill only sightseeing planes are exempt.

During Monday's debate Senate Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said "we still have a long way to go on this legislation, I hope we can do it."