Bill to improve safety puts airline industry and Congress at odds

The airline industry and Congressional leaders are at odds over funding for plans to speed modernization of the U.S. air traffic control system and improve aviation safety.

The central issue: a proposal headed for a Senate vote as early as this week requiring airlines to spend their own money to equip planes with upgraded navigation systems, which could significantly delay rollout of new technologies The Senate is scheduled to consider a $35 billion package that calls for tougher rules covering a wide range of airline safety issues from pilot hiring and training to mandatory scheduling changes to combat cockpit fatigue.

The package reflects broad congressional desire to beef up oversight, particularly of commuter carriers, in the wake of several recent U.S. airline accidents and incidents.

Legislation in both the House and Senate includes passenger-rights sections that set three-hour limits for airliners to sit on the tarmac waiting to take off. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued similar limits, but lawmakers seem intent on ensuring their permanence. This provision, too, has been controversial, with airlines saying they would cancel flights rather than risk fines.

But despite years of industry lobbying, the proposal contains no provisions to help cash-strapped airlines pay for billions of dollars in new cockpit technology, a gap that could slow implementation and delay benefits to passengers for years.

Like legislation previously approved by the House, the Senate bill aims to chart a course for transforming the current system of ground-based radars and controllers into a new generation of satellite-based technologies able to handle larger numbers of flights more efficiently and with dramatically less environmental impact. Dubbed NextGen, the network is designed to allow aircraft to fly shorter, more direct routes with pilots taking over some of the core functions of controllers.

The government already has pledged to spend some $20 billion on the new system’s backbone. According to the latest FAA projections, the system essentially would pay for itself through 2018 by reducing total anticipated flight delays more than 20% and saving airlines 1.4 billion gallons of fuel.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, had been the industry’s best hope. As he brought the bill to the Senate floor last week, Mr. Rockefeller said it allotted roughly $500 million a year to fund the FAA’s role in NextGen technology through 2025. But he emphasized that airlines would be entirely responsible for equipping their planes. “We’re not paying for that,” he said after a press conference Thursday. “They [the airlines] are going to have to do it; otherwise they’re going to have a real hard time landing.”

Gerard Arpey, the chairman and chief executive of AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, said at an FAA conference last week that he was “dumbfounded” that the stimulus bill didn’t provide financial help to install new aircraft equipment. Industry estimates peg such annual costs at $1.5 billion or so through the middle of the decade. If “we are willing to spend billions of general tax dollars for high speed rail,” Mr. Arpey asked, “why not a few for high speed aviation?”

Lacking White House support for such funding, many lawmakers are eager to avoid election-year risks of doling out dollars to corporate beneficiaries already unpopular with many voters. Moreover, since the government has never before directly subsidized onboard navigation and air-traffic equipment, lawmakers and congressional staff members are leery of setting a precedent that could become a federal financial drain.

With some experts predicting that the number of U.S. passengers could climb by nearly 40% over the next two decades, even President Barack Obama has talked up the economic advantages of switching to satellite-based navigation. “If we can upgrade those technologies” used to control air traffic, he said during a recent town hall meeting, “we could reduce delays and cancellations.”

Without commenting on specifics, an FAA spokeswoman said “we look forward to working with Congress” when House and Senate conferees take up the bills.

Yet without direct financial help for the airline industry—which has racked up more than $30 billion of losses in the past three years—the Senate’s bipartisan language does little to resolve the biggest hurdle to speedy implementation—it’s funding. “This is not about airlines wanting to have the latest and greatest in their cockpits,” said Dave Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group continuing to lobby on the topic. “This is about the complete overhaul of an infrastructure.”

While Obama Administration officials are moving to accelerate and roll out piecemeal elements of the planned system, deficit worries have prompted senior White House aides and congressional leaders to repeatedly reject including airliner upgrades as part of stimulus bills. The decisions were prompted partly by White House concerns that it would take too long to create new jobs from such measures, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

The Senate also will take up a controversial provision—which has rankled European politicians and regulators—requiring FAA inspectors to step up oversight of foreign maintenance shops.

In recent years Congress has approved 11 temporary extensions of the bill authorizing FAA operations because lawmakers were unable to agree on a major rewrite. Another extension may be needed if the bill doesn’t gain approval before the law expires again at the end of March. The Senate legislation is already bogged down by a slew of amendments—some of which are not related to aviation—that Mr. Rockefeller and other proponents say could complicate the process and stall passage.