The House of Representatives already has passed a reauthorization bill and a proposed Senate bill is working its way through that chamber. But the Senate version is starkly different from the House version, so even if it is passed a House/Senate conference committee will be formed to attempt to reconcile the disparate pieces of legislation into one bill that can be cleared by both houses.

Here is ATWOnline's guide to the contentious debate ahead, looking at the key issues that could prevent a reauthorization bill from reaching President Barack Obama's desk this fall for signature into law:

Overall Scope

Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee, seeking to avoid the controversy that has scuttled past attempts at reauthorizing FAA, gained bipartisan backing in July for a two-year, $40 billion bill that largely pushes key questions over the agency's long-range agenda and funding to 2011. It aims to give new FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt and the Obama administration time to develop a more comprehensive, longer-term reauthorization proposal that theoretically would be passed in two years. Rockefeller's committee overwhelmingly cleared the legislation, which now must be approved by the Senate Finance Committee and then voted on by the full chamber. In contrast, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) spearheaded passage in May--along more partisan lines--of a three-year, $53.5 billion bill that contains a number of divisive provisions that could have a significant impact on the air transport industry. It is unclear how many concessions Oberstar and House Democrats will be willing to make to support legislation that more closely resembles the Senate's less ambitious version.

Sunsetting Alliances

The House bill calls for airline alliances to be sunsetted every three years, forcing carriers to reapply and receive new approval from the Dept. of Transportation for international tie-ups. Airlines, the European Union and House Republicans all have expressed strong opposition. The Senate bill contains no such language. Oberstar has been particularly vocal in support of the alliance provision.

Repair Station Inspections

The same parties that oppose sunsetting alliances also are against a provision in the House bill that would require FAA to carry out inspections of foreign repair stations twice annually and require those organizations to introduce mandatory drug and alcohol testing if they maintain aircraft operated by US airlines. EU Ambassador to the US John Bruton asserts that the proposed regulation contradicts the EU-US Aviation Safety Agreement, "would impede its implementation" and would unnecessarily raise costs for EU-based repair stations. Others have suggested that it would invite retaliatory actions by the EU and other governments that would hurt US repair stations. The Senate bill contains similar language regarding repair station inspections but makes an exception if "a bilateral aviation safety agreement [is] in place that allows for comparable inspection by local authorities." Senators appear confident that this clause would alleviate EU concerns.

Passenger Rights

The Senate bill would require carriers to return flights to gates when tarmac delays reach 3 hr. to allow passengers wishing to leave the aircraft to deplane. The US Air Transport Assn. has pushed back against "a hard-and-fast, inflexible timeframe" that it believes will have "unintended consequences." However, the recent high-profile incident in which passengers were stranded overnight on an ExpressJet Holdings ERJ-145 in Rochester, Minn., has reinforced the Senate's enthusiasm for the provision.

FedEx Provision

FedEx has threatened to cancel 15 firm orders for 777Fs plus 15 options if a proposal in the House bill that calls for the delivery giant to be governed by the National Labor Relations Act rather than the Railway Labor Act becomes law. Since FedEx was founded as an airline in 1971, it has fallen under the jurisdiction of the RLA, which forces railway and airline workers to go through a long arbitration process before taking work actions and bars the formation of localized unions. Rival UPS, considered a trucking company, falls under the NLRA, which allows workers to organize on a local level and has fewer barriers to work actions. UPS long has argued for a change in FedEx's status, which FedEx claims would create "upheaval." The proposal has led to an intense lobbying battle this summer between the rival companies.

Modernizing ATC

Sometimes lost amid the above controversies is the fact that the main purpose of both the House and Senate bills is supposed to be enabling FAA to transition from radar-based ATC to the satellite-based NextGen system. The Senate legislation mandates establishment of an Air Traffic Control Modernization Oversight Board and a Chief NextGen Officer and sets a series of NextGen deadlines for both FAA and industry. But neither bill definitively details the specific mechanisms for funding the NextGen transition, estimated to cost the US government and airline industry as much as $50 billion combined. Rockefeller says long-term funding details can be worked out over the next two years.

Washington's Mood

The FAA reauthorization debate won't take place in a vacuum. With a rancorous debate over reforming the US health care system expected to consume much of the attention of Congress, the White House and the media, how much time and energy will be left this fall for other issues, particularly FAA reauthorization?