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House backs bill aimed at reducing air delays
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government could force airlines to make schedule changes, under legislation approved by the House of Representatives on Thursday, if carriers aggravate delays by operating too many flights at peak periods at the busiest airports.
The measure was included in a $68 billion bill that would fund Federal Aviation Administration operations between 2008 and 2011, and take the most meaningful step yet toward transforming air traffic control from an aging network of radars to a satellite-based navigation system.
Other provisions would increase corporate jet fuel taxes from 21.8 cents to 35.9 cents per gallon, and increase the maximum passenger facility charge on an airline ticket to $7 from $4.50, generating $2.2 billion in additional annual revenue. Fuel taxes and passenger fees help fund FAA operations and air traffic modernization initiatives.
One of the most contentious issues, a proposal to reopen the disputed air traffic controllers contract for further negotiation, also was included in the final bill over the objections of key Republicans and the White House.
Rep. John Mica of Florida and the top Republican on the Transportation Committee, said the contract language and a proposal to make it easier for ground workers at the express operations of FedEx Corp to organize would sink the legislation, if they are not removed when House/Senate negotiators craft a final bill later this year.
"The FAA bill is going nowhere," Mica said.
The Senate has yet to consider its version.
The White House this week threatened a veto over the contract provision, a threat that carried more weight after supporters failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority to override a veto. The bill passed 267-151.
Responding to consumer pressure to do something about worsening flight delays in 2007 and passenger inconvenience, House lawmakers included provisions that would force carriers to improve service.
Airlines would be required to submit contingency plans to federal transportation authorities on how they would ensure passenger comfort and convenience during long delays. Several high profile incidents this year, in which passengers were stranded on planes for hours, triggered traveler and congressional outrage.
In an effort to reduce delays, lawmakers approved a provision permitting the FAA to first seek voluntary schedule reductions if airlines offer too many peak-hour flights at congested airports.
If there is no agreement, then the FAA can order the airlines to reduce their schedules.
"The on-time performance of the airlines this year has been the worst on record, and we are hearing daily from air travelers about this poor performance," said Rep. Jerry Costello, an Illinois Democrat and co-author of the bill as chairman of the House Transportation aviation subcommittee.
"The FAA can already take action to address the issue of congestion and delays and this bill will make sure that it uses this authority," Costello said.
Airlines have said it is unfair to isolate them in the delay controversy, saying the antiquated air traffic system, corporate aviation -- especially in New York -- and bad weather are all contributing factors.
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