Thune Clears Path for Long-Term Aviation Bill This Summer

Commerce chairman abandons effort to change how pilot hours are counted

Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune is dropping a controversial pilot training provision from the aviation bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

South Dakota Sen. John Thune’s decision to drop a controversial provision on pilot training clears a path for lawmakers to complete a long-term aviation reauthorization bill this summer that addresses drones, aircraft certification, safety and other issues.

Thune, the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said last week he was abandoning his effort to change how pilot hours are counted. That came after House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster gave up the week before on spinning off the air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration. Both proposals encountered stiff resistance in Congress.

Lawmakers are trying to work out a long-term bill, but are expected to first pass a short-term extension. The current authority expires March 31. Thune said an FAA extension into the summer could be attached to the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill that leaders expect to pass by March 23, when current stopgap funding expires. He said the extension would be “as clean as we can keep it.”

Thune and Shuster steered bills through their committees in 2017, but neither received a floor vote. The Senate bill proposed authorizing $68 billion over four years, and the House bill would authorize $62.25 billion over six years. The difference in annual authorization levels was largely due to the spinoff taking place halfway through the House bill’s timeline.

Shuster has said he wants to pursue “reforms” to the air traffic control system short of his spinoff proposal, but has been vague about what that would entail.

Paul Lewis, a policy analyst at the think tank Eno Center for Transportation, said changes to the FAA’s technology overhaul program known as NextGen are possible. Members of both parties and industry representatives have criticized the agency’s delays and cost overruns on a navigation technology that is meant to save time and fuel for passengers and airlines.

Thune faced opposition to his proposal to allow pilots to count time on activities other than flying in the 1,500-hour requirement for a commercial license. For example, training on sophisticated flight simulation technology would count under his plan.

The South Dakota Republican said he had made progress on a Transportation Department solution on training hours. “We’ve made enough progress with them that I feel confident, at least at this point, that we can move forward with an FAA bill,” he said Thursday.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer had vowed to block the bill from a floor vote if it contained the provision on pilot hours. Thune said offering the amendment raised the issue’s profile enough that an administrative fix could be on the way. He said that was still in the early stages and he couldn’t offer any specifics on what the solution might look like.

The long-term bill will likely be a venue for airports to try and accomplish a long-standing policy objective: raising or uncapping the limit on a local fee they can charge passengers per ticket. Airports collect the passenger facility charge on tickets and use them to make local improvements. The federal government has capped the maximum per ticket charge at $4.50.

The issue has long been the airport industry’s top legislative priority, but airlines call the proposal a tax increase.

Airlines are also likely to fight other provisions they see as further regulation of their industry.

“Deregulation has created more flights to more destinations at lower fares than ever before,” said Alison McAfee, a spokeswoman for industry group Airlines for America. “Any attempt to re-regulate the industry would threaten to hinder this progress, backfiring on millions of consumers in the form of higher fares and reduced service.”

To the extent the FAA bill is tied to an administration-backed infrastructure initiative, lawmakers could add provisions to loosen prohibitions on public-private partnerships at airports, said Bob Poole, a fellow at the libertarian Reason Foundation. A small existing program allows only one large U.S. hub to create public-private partnerships.

“I know there’s a lot of interest from infrastructure investment firms in U.S. airports,” he said.

Drones have developed rapidly since the last FAA authorization bill in 2016. Both the House and Senate bills in 2017 include provisions on drone policy, and those are likely to be changed or expanded in a bill this year.

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