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Why Congress finally passed FAA reauthorization

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The US Congress overcame, among other things, my skepticism that it could actually pass a long-term FAA reauthorization bill. For the first time since 2003, ages ago in terms of technological advancements in air navigation technologies and procedures, Congress has established a baseline federal policy for US aviation, no small thing.

What was different this time? Battle weariness, for one. FAA's authorization officially lapsed Sept. 30, 2007, but the debate in Congress over reauthorization started in earnest a couple of years prior to that date. Everyone was tired of the FAA issue after six years of back and forth under two Presidents and multiple Congresses. The concerns central to FAA operations, particularly regarding the provisioning of ATC, are by and large not well understood by members of Congress, enough of whom finally came to the conclusion they wanted to put FAA reauthorization to bed with November elections on the horizon.

As Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said, nobody got everything they wanted in the compromise legislation. But everyone does get something that had been sorely lacking: more certainty over airport construction projects, ATC modernization and FAA's authority more generally. That lack of certainty had started to vex the US business community, which put out the signal recently that it was time to pass an FAA bill, even an imperfect one.

Also, the ultimate playing card in FAA negotiations—a partial shutdown of the agency—was dealt last summer and turned out to be an across-the-board public relations fiasco. Once one shutdown occurred, and embarrassed everyone, no one in Congress could credibly use the prospect of one as a negotiating ploy any longer. It did take six months from the shutdown last summer to the passage of a bill this winter, but the correlation is hard to deny.

In essence, Congress did pass an FAA reauthorization bill in the 2007 fall—a haphazard, four-plus year bill characterized by threatened stops and starts in funding, unclear agency strategy and little accounting for changes in technology and industry circumstances since the last FAA reauthorization legislation was cleared in 2003. Now can the agency use this new bill as a springboard to accelerating the implementation of a truly wide scale NextGen ATC system that brings US air transport to the satellite era?

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