US Senate approves sweeping aviation bill, sends to White House

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 7, 2012 5:06am EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate approved a $63 billion bill on Monday that funds U.S. aviation programs for four years and authorizes new steps for the government to modernize the air traffic system.

Senate lawmakers cleared the measure by a 75-to-20 vote, sending it to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature. The House of Representatives approved it last week.

The compromise legislation sets out a blueprint for predictable funding of the Federal Aviation Administration, which receives about $15 billion annually to operate air traffic control centres at more than 400 airports.

The agency also inspects commercial aircraft and oversees airline safety operations and airport improvement projects.

The agency has operated under 23 straight temporary spending bills since the previous long-term law authorizing its budget expired in 2007. The current stop-gap spending measure expires February 17. A fight over federal spending prompted a partial shutdown of the FAA last summer for two weeks.

Congress has fought for the past four years over federal spending levels, fees, limits on airport uses and government subsidies for service to rural communities.

Passage was assured, however, when House and Senate negotiators struck a surprise compromise last month on a provision affecting union elections at commercial carriers.

The deal partially rolled back a regulatory change that made it easier for labour groups to organize. More than a dozen unions objected strongly to the compromise and launched a last-minute lobbying push to head it off.

Other key provisions of the four-year bill include:

* Roughly $3 billion annually for the next phase of transforming the U.S. air traffic system from one based on radar to one relying on global positioning satellites.

* A congressional statement opposing a controversial European Union law that makes airlines globally pay for emissions from their aircraft when flying over Europe. The Obama administration also opposes the measure and is trying to get European states to resolve the matter at the United Nations.

* A provision permitting the Transportation Department to offer loan guarantees to airlines to help them pay for air traffic modernization equipment needed on their planes.

* A $190 million annual outlay for subsidizing airline service to rural communities.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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