U.S. Senate Approves FAA Bill, Settles Airport Fight

The U.S. Senate approved $34.6 billion of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration after resolving a dispute over the number of new flights to a federally owned airport near Washington.

Senators voted 87-8 today for the two years of funding. Yesterday, Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican, won approval from the House transportation committee for $59.7 billion for four years of FAA funding. Once that bill receives full House approval, the measure will go to a House-Senate conference committee for lawmakers from both bodies to reconcile and agree upon.

The FAA funding bill was the Senate’s first order of business this year. The disagreement over Washington flights was one of the issues that had delayed renewal of FAA funding for more than three years. The agency has operated on 17 temporary extensions, the most recent of which expires March 31.

Lawmakers agreed to more than double the number of daily round-trip flights between Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the western U.S. to 28 from 12 now, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, said today in the Senate.

“We do now have a breakthrough and a way forward,” Hutchison said when announcing the airport agreement.

Senate, House Versions

To complete the deal, senators must agree on which cities in the western U.S. will get the new flights and reconcile their draft with that of the House. The version approved yesterday by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee allows five additional flights between Reagan and the western U.S.

The number of long-distance flights to Reagan National has been limited since 1966 because of noise concerns, and to bolster growth at Washington Dulles International Airport.

Cities with direct flights from Reagan include Denver, Phoenix, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The carriers that operate them are US Airways Group Inc., Alaska Air Group Inc., Republic Airways Holdings Inc.’s Frontier Airlines, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc.

Before approving the FAA funding bill, senators rejected 61-38 an attempt by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, to end a $200 million federal program to subsidize airline flights to rural areas.

Rural Airports

The Senate did approve amendments by Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, that limit the subsidies to locations that average at least 10 passengers a day and are located at least 90 miles from the nearest airport. The Transportation Department would be allowed to waive the 90-mile requirement in certain cases, such as when geographic limits make the nearest airport difficult to reach.

The Senate FAA legislation would help convert the nation’s air-traffic system to satellite-based technology from ground-based radars by ensuring that the first $500 million in aviation taxes collected be reserved for modernization.

The bill would require the FAA to implement satellite-based procedures, which let airlines fly more direct routes in and out of landing strips, at the busiest 35 airports by 2014 and for the national airspace system by 2018.

It also directs the FAA to plan a system that would alert pilots to near-misses with other aircraft on runways.

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