When the Senate froze debate this week on a bill that would refund and reorganize the Federal Aviation Administration, it also froze travelers’ hopes that badly needed changes in the nation’s aviation system would come about any time soon.
The House passed its version of a FAA bill in last September, but the Senate, caught up in partisan, election-year posturing, has not been able to get its act together. The Senate’s failure to act constructively on a matter of national significance matters, for a number of reasons:
- It means the FAA cannot move forward quickly, as it needs to, to replace the nation’s antiquated, radar-based air-traffic control system with a next-generation satellite positioning system
- It means the FAA cannot move fast enough to replace large numbers of air traffic controllers reaching retirement age, or make plentiful new hires to supplement overworked, stressed-out controllers — the nation’s bulwark against deadly accidents in the sky and on the ground
- It means the FAA can’t move forward fast enough to bring under control another matter of growing concern: the increasing numbers of runway incursions and near-collisions at congested airports.
Oh, the FAA isn’t going to go away. But the agency, which has come under withering criticism for safety lapses — some of it coming from its own inspectors — is just getting by instead of flying forward. FAA reauthorization goes before Congress every five years. The agency is presently running on a temporary extension, and even that extension will run out on June 30. Yet another temporary extension will probably come along, but that is reactive; what is needed is proactive thinking.
In the ignoble Washington tradition, Republicans and Democrats are taking turns blaming each other.
Republicans cut off debate on the Senate FAA bill on Tuesday because, they said, Democrats loaded the bill with non-aviation features, such as a funding stipend for U.S. highways and money for New York City transit projects. Had the bill passed, President Bush, who must sign a reconciled Senate and House bill for it to become law, said he would veto it.
Democrats blame Republicans for blocking a bill that would have included a passengers’ bill of rights, a popular measure in the wake of airline meltdowns that stranded travelers on planes for as long as 11 hours last year. The bill also would have allowed airports to raise fees on airlines — a measure understandably unpopular with money-losing carriers, but necessary, airport operators say, to generate revenue for upgrading crumbling airport infrastructure.
The bill also contained bipartisan features that would strengthen oversight of the FAA itself — no small matter for a watchdog agency that just watched as Southwest Airlines blew off mandatory inspections and flew uninspected planes, and this week additionally admitted that it had skipped some 100 required five-year inspections of seven other U.S. carriers.
Reinventing the FAA and upgrading American aviation is much more important than suspending the gasoline tax this summer for family driving, though that election-season proposal has garnered much more attention from politicians and the mass media.
John McCain, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, where are you?