Wednesday, May 28, 2008

PITY THE STATE of air travel. Pity it, and get used to it.

Planes are packed. Flight delays and cancellations make a joke of airline schedules. And your child's Xbox video game system is more advanced than the air traffic control system that has been guiding aircraft in and out of increasingly crowded airspace since the 1950s. But a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration for another five years and provide a funding mechanism for a satellite-based navigation system is stalled in the Senate.

First, there was the tussle between the commercial airlines and the private plane owners who make up the general aviation category over how to finance the state-of-the-art air traffic control system, which is known as NextGen. The system would allow pilots and the control tower to see the exact location of aircraft, which would bring order to the skies by permitting takeoffs and landings more quickly and safely.

We agree with the FAA's push for a more equitable distribution of the cost-sharing burden. According to the Transportation Department, commercial aviation uses 73 percent of airspace but shoulders 97 percent of the costs. General aviation, meanwhile, gets away with paying 3 percent for its use of 16 percent of the system. The reauthorization bill took on the proposal from the Senate Finance Committee that increased the tax on general aviation jet fuel from 21.8 cents to 35.9 cents per gallon to raise $260 million for the Airport and Airway Trust Fund -- with no guarantee that the money will be spent on NextGen. Combined with revenue generated by switching the fractional jet ownership group (think time shares for private jets) from excise taxes to a flat 50-cents-per-gallon fuel tax, general aviation's share of the cost would be nudged up to 5 percent.

Then the bill became a legislative lint roller of non-aviation-related measures that raised the ire of Senate Republicans. There was a provision to help the cash balances of the Highway Trust Fund. Three were tax credit bonds for rail infrastructure. And there was a provision to double the per-barrel tax rate for oil spills. As a result, the reauthorization bill has been grounded since a cloture vote failed this month.

While Congress bickers over the FAA's future, the agency continues to make incremental improvements. The agency will begin testing NextGen by introducing the system at Daytona Beach, Fla., this summer. Last Friday, the FAA announced a proposal to auction a limited number of landing slots at John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty International airports. Combined with a cap on the number of flights in and out of the New York metropolitan area, that could finally clear the congestion that has snarled air travel across the country. A third of the nation's flights zip through New York airspace, and most of the nation's flight delays can be traced to that bottleneck.

No doubt the current four-month extension of FAA authorization, which expires June 30, will be renewed. But this is no way to regulate air travel. By maintaining the funding levels of previous years, lawmakers are putting off the hard decisions that would bring the air traffic control system into the 21st century and bring relief to a long-suffering flying public.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company