America is facing a pivotal moment in aviation history.
The nation's economy and citizens have come to rely on a safe and reliable air transportation system. Aviation accounts for more than 5 percent of the total U.S. economy--more than 11 million jobs--and moves millions of people and billions of dollars of goods around the world every year. Forecasts predict even bigger demand in the next decade, with a billion passengers flying on U.S. airlines each year by 2021.
Yet for nearly four years, renewal of the long-term legislation that authorizes and sets federal funding for vital aviation programs has faced one congressional delay after another. A political impasse over key provisions has led to reliance on short extensions of the old law--some for only a few weeks--since it expired in 2007.
The deadlock reached a new level in late July, when the 20th extension of the law expired without a new extension in place. As a result, nearly 4,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees were furloughed in 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and airport projects in all the states were put on hold as federal grant programs were shut down. Commercial airlines also lost their authority to collect the ticket taxes that provide most aviation funding, which will cost the government an estimated $1.2 billion before Congress can revisit the issue after its summer recess.
Even without the recent shutdown, the last four years of congressional inaction have left states trying to manage large-scale, long-term aviation programs with limited, short-term federal funding, a dichotomy that could have serious effects on the air transportation network for years to come.
STALLED IN CONGRESS
The last law that authorized federal airport and aviation programs known as Vision 100: Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act--expired on Sept. 30, 2007.
Among other provisions, it authorized the Airport Improvement Program, the main funding source for planning and improvement projects in airports around the country. It also continued funding for the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial air service in more than 150 isolated, rural communities that otherwise would have no service.
Congress started work on a new aviation legislation bill in 2007, but before long, it became bogged down in a political quagmire. Neither the 110th nor the 11th Congress could enact a comprehensive law spanning years, relying instead on more and more short-term extensions of Vision 100. The longest stopgap measure lasted six months; the shortest, just one week.
This year, with Republicans in control of the House, Congress once again took up aviation legislation. At first, the new Congress seemed eager to complete the bill. One of its first acts was to pass a two-month extension, accompanied by a statement from House Aviation Subcommittee Chair Tom Petri that it was "the first, and hopefully last, FAA extension of the 112th Congress."
"There is a strong commitment and much--needed momentum to finally complete a long-term FAA bill," he said. "I fully believe we will do so."
But progress stalled over disagreements about a number of issues--funding levels, the Essential Air Service program and organized labor--and differences between the House and Senate versions stymied negotiations. As of the end of July, the House was proposing a four-year bill that would cut funding to 2008 levels and eliminate the Essential Air Service program except in Alaska and Hawaii. The Senate favored a two-year measure that would retain most Essential Air Service subsidies and boost overall funding to the levels in President Obama's 2012 budget.
The legislation also became embroiled in controversies over aviation taxes and fees and union organizing rules for airline and railway employees.
"Aviation is all about …