By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - A broad aviation bill that would advance modernization of the nation's air traffic control system and boost airport construction was approved Thursday by the Senate.
The bill was approved 87-8. A similar aviation bill cleared a House committee earlier this week.
Congress has been struggling for more than three years to pass an aviation bill that renews Federal Aviation Administration programs and speeds up the transition from an air traffic control system based on World War II-era radar technology to GPS technology.
"There is more technology in my cell phone than in most aircraft," Sen. Dick Dubin, D-Ill., said afterward, waving his phone. "We're going to take that technology out of a cell phone and put it on aircraft and make it safer and more efficient."
The new air traffic system will allow planes to fly more precise routes between airports, saving time, money and fuel. The satellite technology will update the location of planes every second instead of radar's every six to 12 seconds. Pilots will be able to tell not only the location of their plane, but other planes equipped with the new technology as well - something they can't do now.
Democrats described the measure as a jobs-creation bill. They estimate the $8 billion in airport construction funds will support 90,000 current or new jobs and have a beneficial spinoff effect on the employment of another 190,000 workers. The estimate is based on a calculation that $1 billion in federal spending supports 35,000 jobs. It presumes a 20 percent match by local airport authorities in addition to the federal dollars.
"The Senate has now done what the House Republicans haven't even tried yet, which is pass a major jobs bill," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
A major hurdle to passage was removed earlier in the day when an agreement was reached to add up to 16 daily roundtrip flights between Reagan National Airport, the closest airport to the nation's capital, and western states. The airport, located across the Potomac River in Virginia and within sight of the Capitol dome, operates flights mostly with a 1,250-mile "perimeter" imposed decades ago to foster the growth of nearby Washington Dulles International Airport, west of the capital.
Western senators long have complained that the perimeter rule prevents all but a few direct flights from the West Coast. But Virginia and Maryland senators have opposed the expansion of Western flights out of concern that it would draw lucrative air traffic away from the larger Dulles, located farther away from Washington, and from Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland.
Small airports would lose federally subsidized airline service if they within 90 miles of a larger airport or serve less than 10 passengers a day under proposals by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that were added to the bill.
One airport that would lose federal subsidies is in Macon, Ga., which is just 80 miles from Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, according to Coburn's office. Hartsfield is one of the world's busiest airports. The 35-minute flight to Macon costs passengers just $39 per seat, but taxpayers pick up $464 bill, according to Coburn's staff.
Earlier, the Senate rejected 61-38 a proposal by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to eliminate the entire $200 million Essential Air Service program. The program was created to ensure that less-profitable routes to small airports wouldn't be eliminated when airline service was deregulated in 1978. Critics say the airports often serve too few people to merit the amount of money spent in subsidies.
The bill would also:
• Give the FAA one year to develop a plan for broader domestic use of unmanned aircraft. The Defense Department has been pressing the FAA to set aside larger swaths of U.S. airspace for testing unmanned planes. State and local governments, industry and researchers also have been clamoring for permission to use the planes more widely.
Among the many potential uses are tracking criminals for law enforcement agencies, monitoring pipelines and counting cattle.
But the FAA has been slow to grant wider use of unmanned aircraft beyond military testing, a few border patrol planes and limited use by researchers. Agency officials have complained that they lack enough safety data for unmanned aircraft and that they pose risks not associated with planes with onboard pilots.
• Make it a federal law that airlines can't keep passengers trapped in planes on airport tarmacs for longer than three hours without giving them the opportunity to get off. Airlines also would have to provide passengers with water.
The provision is nearly identical to rules already adopted last year by the Transportation Department. But the provision's sponsors said putting the passenger protections into law makes it more difficult to roll them back in the future.
"We don't know what the next president will do," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Airlines oppose the three-hour limit, which they say has led to more flight cancellations and more inconvenience.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)