The Senate on Monday passed a bill to provide funding for the FAA and modernize the air traffic control system by 2020. The $34.5 billion three-year budget is expected to jump-start the agency's long slow transition to NextGen. The bill also features changes to FAA rules prompted mainly by last year's Colgan Air crash. Relatives of those who died lobbied hard for several safety measures that have made it into the final version of the Senate bill: first officers on commercial passenger flights must have at least 800 hours total time; the FAA must establish new safety standards for flight-crew training; an Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office will be established within the FAA; and pilots are banned from using electronic devices in the cockpit. Taxes on jet fuel for general aviation would rise from 22 cents per gallon to 36 cents. The bill is far from final, however -- it now goes to a conference committee where the House and Senate versions of the legislation will be merged, then both houses will have to vote on the final bill again before it goes to the White House for approval. GA advocacy groups were jubilant about the bill's passage, especially the lack of new user fees.
AOPA President Craig Fuller said he is pleased the bill doesn't impose user fees, while giving the FAA "the guidance and the long-term support it needs to move forward with the crucial work of modernizing our air traffic control system." National Air Transportation Association President James Coyne also was happy with the bill. "I would like to congratulate the U.S. Senate for approving a [bill] that is void of user fees and that provides a fair jet-fuel tax increase," he said. He added that he hopes the conference committee will be convened soon to keep the process moving along. GAMA President Pete Bunce was also upbeat. "We are extremely pleased with the passage of this bill, which takes a number of critical steps needed for the acceleration of NextGen," he said. National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said the Senate vote is a sign of progress. "This bill ... addresses key issues regarding the stability of the air traffic controller workforce, the inclusion of controllers as key stakeholders in the system and the realignment of FAA facilities." Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, said the bill is a "good step" toward modernization of the national aviation system. "Importantly, the legislation builds on the fuel tax to help pay for modernization, instead of resorting to user fees," he said. "This approach is the one uniformly supported by general aviation to help pay for Next Gen." The FAA has been funded by short-term extensions, without a comprehensive reauthorization bill, since 2007.