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Senate to Vote on Key FAA Bill (Again)

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The Senate appears set to once again take up the Federal Aviation Authorization bill, which it passed by an overwhelming 93-0 vote last year before the bill died in the House.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the tactic this time is to sell the bill, which includes essential long-term funding for our nation's air travel infrastructure, as a jobs-maker. Bill proponents say the legislation could "support the employment of 90,000 workers and affect another 190,000 jobs," largely through an $8 billion investment in airport construction.

Hey, whatever works.

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For consumers, there are a lot of important changes, both near- and long-term, tied up in this bill. While we're still waiting to see an official version of the new bill, all reports say it's identical to last year's, meaning it will include funding and some sort of deployment plan for NextGen. NextGen is a new, satellite-based air traffic control system that would allow tighter scheduling, cut down on delays, and create a safer flying environment. The system also conserves fuel by guiding airplanes to more efficient flight paths.

Similarly, travelers will be wondering if the Clear Airfares Act carries over from last year's legislation. The Clear Airfares Act, sponsored by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez (read my interview with him here), would require airlines and online travel agents to display taxes and fees—even bag fees—early on in the booking process, meaning you'll know the full price up front and won't get hit with surprise fees at the airport. I have a call into Sen. Menendez' office to see if the Act will appear in the new legislation, and if there will be changes to the Act itself.

Last year's bill also included a passengers' bill of rights, some of which mirrors the Department of Transportation's tarmac delay rules.

Logic would hold that the Senate, which was nearly unanimous in its support a year ago, will pass the bill again. So the real question is, what happens in the House? According to the AP, "Republicans have also signaled they intend to fast-track an FAA bill [in the house]." Rep. John Mica, the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill will be his first priority.

But the eventual House version of the bill may look a lot different from the Senate bill. The House's mantra these days is to cut costs wherever possible, meaning elements of the legislation may be pared back or eliminated entirely.

According to the AP, last year's bill "stalled when Congress couldn't reach agreement on several side issues, including distribution of landing slots at Reagan National Airport near Washington, the fee airline passengers pay to support airport improvements and a labor dispute between delivery giants FedEx and United Parcel Service."

Congress has been issuing temporary extensions of FAA funding for years, and the current funding period ends in March. Let's hope Washington's newfound warm-and-fuzzy post-partisan environment means Congress will stop kicking this can down the road and pass the new bill. Stay tuned!

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