UPDATE 1-US Senate approves massive aviation blueprint

Mon Mar 22, 2010 7:29pm EDT

* Bill would speed up air traffic modernization

* Private aviation fuel taxes would go up

* Passenger rights provisions on delays would become law

WASHINGTON, March 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate approved a sweeping aviation blueprint on Monday that accelerates the multibillion dollar overhaul of the air traffic control network.

The air traffic measure was included in legislation for reestablishing aviation programs run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through 2011.

The bill was approved 93-0.

It increases fuel taxes on private aircraft, including business jets, to 36 cents per gallon from 22 cents to help pay for shifting the aging radar-based air traffic network to one relying on satellites.

Supporters say the modernization will move planes more efficiently and save money on fuel. The government estimates the overhaul will cost more than $20 billion through 2025.

"Passing this legislation means that our aviation industry will have the tools necessary to grow," said Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate's aviation subcommittee.

Details of a final FAA bill must be hammered out by negotiators from the Senate and the House of Representatives, which has approved a similar version.

Other provisions of the Senate bill upgrade safety.

Changes also include strengthening crew training at small airlines, and require clearer disclosure about which feeder carriers are operating flights. Those changes stemmed from a 2009 crash near Buffalo, New York in which all 50 passengers and crew died.

The bill also requires more frequent inspections of overseas repair stations, where many major airlines send planes for regular maintenance.

The Senate bans pilots from using wireless devices or laptops in the cockpit that are unrelated to work. That change stems from an October incident when a Northwest Airlines flight overflew its destination by more than 100 miles.

Investigators concluded the pilots were reviewing work schedules on a laptop computer during the flight to Minneapolis and lost track of time and their location. The plane landed safely.

The Senate bill also puts into law regulatory requirements that airlines give passengers the option - in most circumstances -- of exiting an aircraft after a three-hour ground delay.

The so-called passenger bill of rights provisions also require carriers provide adequate food, water and restroom facilities during delays.

"Airline passengers can now be assured that they no longer will become prisoners in the event of a lengthy delay, nor will their safety be compromised to meet an airlines bottom line," said Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, a co-author of rights provisions.

The House bill increases fees paid by passengers for airport improvements, and contains a contentious labor provision that would make it easier for ground workers at FedEx Corp (FDX.N) to unionize. (Reporting by John Crawley)

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