updated 3/22/2010 4:36:33 PM ET 2010-03-22T20:36:33

A bill that would modernize the antiquated U.S. air traffic control system, a major source of delays and safety concerns, edged closer to Senate passage Monday.

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The $34.5 billion bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration through Sept. 30, 2011, would speed up deployment of the NextGen program to replace the current air traffic system, based on World War II-era radar technology, with one based on GPS technology. It requires the FAA to have key elements of the system in place at the nation's busiest airports as soon as 2014, although a full transition for all aircraft isn't anticipated until around 2020.

The new system is projected to cost the FAA as much as $22 billion through 2025. Airlines would have to spend about $20 billion more to install equipment in their planes.

In the long term, the system is expected to save airlines money by allowing planes in crowded air corridors to take more direct routes and fly closer to each other without safety risks, reducing delays, saving energy and cutting down on pollution. The system is crucial to handling the expected growth in air traffic from about 700 million passengers in 2009 to the more than 1 billion forecast in 2023.

Still, some airline executives say that as much as they want the new system, they cannot afford it. Airlines have been lobbying the Obama administration for funds to pay for equipment critical to achieving the new system's full benefits.

Airlines have suffered repeated shocks over the past decade, including the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the SARS virus, volatile oil prices and the current economic downturn. They have shed more than 158,000 full-time jobs since employment peaked in 2001 and lost an estimated $30 billion to $60 billion in recent years. Thirteen airlines have filed for bankruptcy in the past two years.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met in December with airlines and unions to discuss solutions to restoring financial health to the industry.

Slideshow: Awful airlines The Senate bill includes several enhanced safety measures that follow on the crash of a regional airliner in upstate New York in February 2009 that took 50 lives and the incident last October in which pilots of a Northwest Airlines plane flew more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) past their destination of Minneapolis while they were working on their laptops.

The bill bans pilots from using laptops and other personal electronic devices in the cockpit. It requires the FAA to update how many hours airlines can require pilots to be on duty and how much rest they must get between work days. The FAA is to require airlines to tighten pilot hiring criteria and have remedial training programs for pilots who fail skills tests or make other errors.

The bill also would double the frequency of FAA inspections of all foreign aircraft repair and maintenance stations that work on U.S. planes, requiring them twice a year instead of annually.

Airlines used to perform nearly all the major maintenance and repair work using their own workers. Over the last two decades, they have increasingly outsourced the work to domestic and foreign repair stations that use cheaper, nonunion labor.

The House passed a three-year FAA funding bill last year that includes several contentious labor provisions not part of the Senate bill. The House would also raise the passenger facility charge, which goes to airports to pay for improvements, from $4.50 per ticket to $7. Differences between the two bills remain to be worked out.

Associated Press writer Jim Abrams contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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