Essential Air Service, grants for Alaska preserved in FAA bill

After five years and nearly two dozen short-term extensions of the Federal Aviation Administration budget, the state that relies on air transportation more than any other can breathe a little easier.

The Alaska Congressional delegation has fought — and won — many of the same fights over and over through one FAA extension after another since 2007. With the passage of a four-year authorization for the agency Feb. 6, a number of provisions critical to Alaska were protected.

The Essential Air Service, or EAS, program that provides about $13 million in annual subsidies to 44 rural airports around the state was targeted for cuts by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last year.

Several airport improvement projects in Alaska were temporarily halted last August and 79 FAA employees in the state were furloughed when the agency was forced to shut down as the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate fought over airline union election rules.

The National Mediation Board, which governs rail and aviation employees, overhauled union election rules in 2010 by requiring a majority of votes to form a union rather than previous interpretations of the law that required a majority of all employees to approve a union. Under the previous rules, any employee who didn’t vote was counted as a “no.”

The compromise agreed upon between the House and Senate to resolve the impasse removes the counting of non-votes and requires 50 percent of a company’s employees to vote in favor of holding an election versus the previous requirement for 35 percent of employees.

The EAS funding for Alaska continues in the new FAA bill, as does the formula that awards Airport Improvement Program, or AIP, grants to state airports in a larger proportion than the U.S. as a whole.

In 2011, Alaska received $229 million, or about 6.64 percent of AIP funds, while the 59 airports that received grants represented about 2.87 percent of the national total.

The four-year authorization of the FAA provides more than $13 billion in AIP funding, or about $3.35 billion per year. At the 2011 rate, that would represent about $222.4 million in AIP funding per year for Alaska.

The $3.35 billion per year average is the lowest amount since 2007, and while it is roughly in line with the averages annual expenditures since 2002, it is about a $1 billion cut from 2009.

The new FAA bill also continues the 95 percent federal match for airports that receive EAS subsidies or are located in an area designated as an economic development district. Every airport in Alaska other than the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is eligible for the 95 percent match.

A 2007 study by the state estimated the aviation industry contributes $3.5 billion to the Alaska economy each year in direct and indirect spending while supporting about 47,000 jobs, or 10 percent of the workforce.

“With 82 percent of Alaska communities not on the road system, aviation is a lifeline for our state,” said Sen. Mark Begich in a statement following the senate’s 75-20 vote passing the FAA bill. “This legislation makes needed investments in our airport infrastructure, enhances aviation safety and provides additional consumer safe guards for airline passengers, all without any new user fees on general aviation.”

The bill passed the House 248 to 169 and President Barack Obama was signed by Feb. 14, just days before the FAA extension expired.

Several other provisions important to Alaska were included in the final FAA bill:

• Transport of oxygen canisters. A 2009 regulation required the use of heavy, bulky containers for shipping oxidizing gases. According to the Air Carriers Association, about 10,000 such cylinders are shipped annually in Alaska. The state’s carriers relied on an exemption to the rule over the past two years. The state exemption was included in the final FAA bill.

• NextGen avionics. The technology pioneered in Alaska to improve safety through improved situational awareness for pilots by the Capstone program (implemented in the last long-term FAA bill passed in 2007) will be funded nationally. Although there was a spike in fatal crashes in 2010, with six incidents causing 12 deaths, the trend has been a decline in the latter half of the decade from 2000 to 2010. The fatality rate for Alaska aviation declined by about 32 percent from 2005 to 2009.

The FAA bill also continues funding for the Alaska Aviation Safety Project with respect to three-dimensional mapping of Alaska’s main aviation corridors.

• Volcanic ash. Alaska air traffic was disrupted in March 2009, when Mount Redoubt erupted, and Europe’s air traffic came to a standstill after the Icelandic eruption in 2010. Sen. Lisa Murkowski proposed, and the new FAA bill includes, a system for improving volcanic ash avoidance, as well as warning and notification systems.

• Runway safety programs. The FAA bill requires the agency to submit a plan to Congress within six months outlining goals to improve runway safety with near- and long-term actions, timeframes needed to achieve goals and a safety review of every commercial service airport in the U.S. with proposed actions to improve airport lighting, signage and taxiway markings.

The Alaska Air Carriers Association expects this provision will impact Alaska in terms of funding measurements. When it takes federal funds, the state is required to maintain and operate the infrastructure for 20 years at an effective standard. With the evaluation and review provisions of the new FAA bill, Alaska may see increased pressure from the agency to meet certain conditions for runway surfaces and airport infrastructure.

While several battles have been won for Alaska for the next four years, there is still work for the state delegation.

The “avgas” issue is still unresolved, with the Environmental Protection Agency contemplating new regulations that would ban the leaded gasoline that is of critical importance to general aviation operators in the state.

Also, in the president’s recent budget proposal, an additional charge of $100 per flight would apply to general aviation operations. That could cost Alaska operators more than $7.5 million per year in new fees if approved.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

02/16/2012 - 6:57am