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Flight safety bill stalls in Senate

The measure included provisions to update the air traffic control system and to protect stranded passengers.

May 07, 2008|James Hohmann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After a week of partisan fighting, a far-reaching aviation safety bill was effectively grounded in the Senate on Tuesday over squabbles on unrelated issues.

The legislation to modernize and fund the Federal Aviation Administration included such provisions as money for a satellite-based air traffic control system and a mandatory two-year prohibition on official contact between the agency and former FAA inspectors who go to work for airlines. The House has already passed its version of the bill.

Republicans objected to what they called extraneous tax increases; they also criticized billions of dollars allocated to highways and railroads. Leaders of both parties dueled over rules for offering amendments, ultimately failing to reach agreement.

Democrats tried to cut off debate, but they failed to get the 60 votes necessary. The final vote was 49 to 42.

"I want the American people to understand this," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said at a news conference after the vote. "The next time they're stranded on an airplane and they're wondering why they can't get off, or why they don't have food or water after four hours sitting there, it's frankly because of Republican obstructionism."

Boxer sponsored a provision in the bill that would have required airlines to provide food, drinking water, cabin ventilation, toilet facilities and access to medical treatment for passengers on planes stuck on the ground for hours.

The last few months have brought bad news for both the FAA and the flying public. In a report issued in April, the Department of Transportation's inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III, decried a close relationship between airlines and inspectors that he said led to "serious lapses in FAA's oversight."

A failure to comply with airworthiness directives prompted American Airlines in April to ground more than 3,000 flights while it inspected its fleet of MD-80 jetliners, causing delays for a quarter-million travelers.

The bill would have strengthened the voluntary self-disclosure program that allows airlines to escape steep fines if they come forward with problems before the FAA discovers them.

Also included was an independent review board to investigate air safety issues and a system to better monitor runway incursions.

The White House last week threatened to veto the bill, citing concern about a provision in the House version to strengthen collective bargaining power for air traffic controllers and about requirements for FAA inspections of foreign maintenance centers.

By law, Congress must vote to reauthorize the FAA every five years. The current authority expires next month. Congress is allowed to pass a temporary extension, meaning full action could be delayed until next year.

On both sides, people said a compromise bill might yet come up for a vote this session.

"I don't think anybody's willing to say it's dead," said Steven Broderick, press secretary for Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee on aviation operations, safety and security.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said there would be a vote if and when "nonaviation related provisions" in the Senate version of the bill were removed.

"Republicans do not oppose moving forward with an FAA modernization bill," he said.

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james.hohmann@latimes.com

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