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Rural Alaska air service program survives in FAA funding bill

Ben Anderson
BLS photo

It may not seem like it, but for a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, three years is a lifetime. The Senate on Monday voted 75-20 to approve a bill granting FAA $63 billion through 2015 and ending years of piecemeal, short-term extensions that sometimes secured funding for just a few months. 

As The Hill points out, short-term authorizations have been the name of the game for the FAA since 2007, and the long-term extension comes at a time few would have expected it. In August, a deadlock over certain FAA programs and a failure to pass a pending reauthorization led to a two-week shutdown, furloughing thousands of employees and reducing the agency to essential functions. The long-term extension ends a series of 23 short-term extensions.

The House passed the "FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act" (H.R. 658) on Friday by a vote of 248-169, and the Senate finished the job Monday, sending it along to the desk of President Barack Obama for final approval. Alaska Rep. Don Young and Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich all voted for the bill.

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“I am thrilled we were finally able to pass a long-term FAA reauthorization,” Begich said in a prepared statement following passage."This legislation has major significance for our state.”

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The bill, a longer-term reauthorization than many previous efforts, is more comprehensive in what it will fund. It includes the creation of a Chief NextGen Officer, who will oversee the continuing implementation of the NextGen Satellite communication system, replacing the old radar-tracking systems in use throughout the country.

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The NextGen officer would be appointed by and report to the FAA Administrator. That position is currently being filled on an interim basis by Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta, after former Administrator Randy Babbitt stepped down in December following an arrest for drunken driving in Virginia.

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Fierce Government reports that the requirement for aircraft to install Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) technology -- the technology that is the key to NextGen communications -- will come in 2020, a date the FAA sought.  Previous authorizations had specified a deadline of 2015. The NextGen technology is expected to help boost the number of unmanned aerial vehicles populating the skies, aircraft expected to play an even larger role in years to come.

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Additionally, the national Airport Improvement Program -- which will benefit 18 airports around Alaska in 2012 -- will receive $3.35 billion for each of the four years the extension covers.

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Perhaps most important to Alaska is securing funds to continue the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which provides subsidized commercial flights to 44 Alaska communities year-round. Alaska's delegation was active in defending the EAS program in Congress last year, so the inclusion of EAS in a four-year extension represents a big win.

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"I’m always stressing to my Senate colleagues that Alaska’s intrastate highway system is our skies -- linking communities like Nikolski and Icy Bay to the rural hubs -- so it’s imperative we keep them connected," Murkowski said in a press release.

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Begich, speaking on the floor of the Senate prior to the vote, pointed out -- twice -- that the reauthorization includes no new user fees for general aviation aircraft. The subject of a proposed $100 "user fee" per flight for small commercial aircraft has been a hot topic in the aviation community, with Murkowski writing a letter to President Obama in November expressing her concern that the fee would unfairly affect small aviation business owners. 

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The bill also allows some Alaska air carriers to bypass the usual regulations that surround shipping tanks filled with compressed oxygen. Many small planes traveling in rural Alaska don't have the space for the special packaging normally required to ship compressed oxygen by air.

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Begich, Murkowski, and Young all expressed their pleasure with the long-term extension, complete with special considerations for Alaska's aviation network.

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"Whether it’s for transportation purposes, search and rescue missions or connecting us with the Lower 48 -- aviation plays an essential role in the lives of all Alaskans," Young said.

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Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com