WASHINGTON (AP) - A sweeping aviation bill that could thwart proposed new safety regulations, including one that would prevent tired pilots from flying, passed the House Friday.
The $59.7 billion Republican-drafted bill is a blueprint for Federal Aviation Administration programs for the next three and a half years. It cuts the agency's budget by $4 billion, money GOP lawmakers said the agency can do without. Democrats said the cuts would endanger air safety.
The bill also eliminates subsidies for air service to rural communities with the exception of airports in Alaska. The Senate bill would disqualify some airports, but retains most of the program.
The bill would also eliminate most of the $200 million essential air service program, which pays airlines to provide scheduled service to 155 communities. It would phase out the program in the lower 48 states by 2013. After that, only subsidies for service to airports in Alaska -- currently about $12.5 million a year -- would be continued.
The program was created to ensure that less-profitable routes to small airports wouldn't be eliminated when airline service was deregulated in 1978. But critics say the airports often serve too few people to merit the subsidies.
Subsidies per airline passenger range as high as $5,223 in Ely, Nev., to as low as $9.21 in Thief River Falls, Minn., according to Transportation Department data for the lower 48 states as of June.
The bill passed on a 223 to 196 mostly party line vote. It would require the FAA to tailor regulations to different segments of the aviation industry rather than set across-the-board safety standards. It also would prohibit new safety regulations if the agency can't justify the costs to the industry.
Lawmakers also clashed over a labor provision in the bill that would make it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to unionize. The provision would overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows employees in those industries to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn't vote were treated as "no" votes.
Republicans complain that the new rule reverses 75 years of precedent to favor labor unions. Democrats and union officials say the change puts airline and railroad elections under the same democratic rules required for unionizing all other companies.
Sixteen Republicans joined Democrats in an unsuccessful attempt to take the labor provision out the bill. The White House warned in a statement Wednesday that President Barack Obama may veto the bill if the funding levels and the labor provision are retained. The Senate has passed a version of the bill that doesn't include the labor provision. Differences between the two remain to be negotiated.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., author of the provision on safety regulations, said it would only apply to future FAA regulations and wouldn't affect regulations the agency is already working on. "I believe we are going to strengthen the rulemaking process and make the skies and aviation travel even safer than it is today," Shuster said.
But Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., a former aviation subcommittee chairman, said the amendment is broadly written applying to all FAA regulations, both current and future, and would make the agency's already cumbersome rulemaking process even more difficult.
The sensitivity of the issue was underscored by the narrowness of the 215 to 209 vote to add Shuster's provision to the bill.
FAA is at work on eight separate sets of new regulations required under a landmark aviation safety law enacted by Congress last year, including regulations that would adjust how many hours pilots can be required to work and how much rest time they must be given between flights.
Among those campaigning against Shuster's provision were the families of victims of a regional airline crash near Buffalo, N.Y., two years ago and Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the airline captain whose piloting skills were lauded after he ditched his plane into the Hudson River following a collision with a flock of geese. Sullenberger predicted in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week that if enacted, the provision would cost lives.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been pushing for the new pilot fatigue regulations based on modern sleep research for two decades. But a broad swath of the aviation industry, including passenger airlines, oppose FAA's proposal for updating work schedule regulations as too costly. FAA estimates the proposal would cost airlines $1.3 billion over the next 10 years, but airlines say it will actually cost many times that amount.
The regulations could be especially expensive for cargo airlines, which do much of their flying over night. Nonscheduled airlines, which transport 95 percent of U.S. troops and 40 percent of military cargo around the world, have said the proposed regulation would make it more difficult for them to complete flights.
The bill also contains a provision that would effectively block a regulation proposed by the Transportation Department aimed at preventing fires caused by air shipments of lithium batteries like those used in cameras, cell phones, laptops and countless other products. The batteries can short-circuit in flight and catch fire.
The proposed regulation has been the focus of an intense lobbying battle pitting pilots who warn that lives are at risk against U.S. industry and foreign governments, which say the regulation would increase costs of countless consumer products.
The amendment would require the department to adopt international shipping standards that are weaker than the department's proposed regulation.
"Regulations that are not harmonized with international safety standards will disrupt the free flow of commerce and threaten jobs," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chief sponsor of the bill.
The funding reductions come at a time when the agency had anticipated a larger, not smaller, budget. FAA is in the midst of a program to switch to a new air traffic system based on GPS technology instead of World War II-era radar technology. The program is expected to cost the government as much as $20 billion over the next decade and industry as much as $22 billion. Much of the rest of the world is either using satellite-based air navigation and air traffic control or planning to upgrade to GPS technology.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)