FAA bill has good news, bad news for Valley airports

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley airports win some and lose some in a big Federal Aviation Administration bill approved Thursday by the House.

The $70 billion bill strengthens small airport subsidies serving cities including Merced and Visalia. Without the federal Essential Air Service payments, Valley airport managers fear they could lose the region's remaining commercial air service to Southern California.

"This maintains the viability of the (service)," said Mario Cifuentez, manager of the Visalia Municipal Airport. "It's healthy for the program."

But while the bill boosts the rural air subsidies, it also disappoints airport managers both for what's in it and what's not. Stiffer airport firefighting requirements worry the Valley's cost-conscious managers. Fresno Yosemite International Airport champions crashed and burned in their bid for federal reimbursements.

All told, the 268-page FAA bill reauthorizes the federal agency for the next four years. Much of it is technical, but air travelers could see some differences as a result. The bill, for instance, prohibits passengers from using cell phones between takeoff and landing on domestic flights. Airport fees now capped at $4.50 per ticket could rise to $7.

The House bill, which still needs Senate approval and further negotiations, also requires new training for flight attendants on dealing with drunks.

"The training shall include situational training on methods of handling an intoxicated person who is belligerent," the bill states.

In some cases, the bill approved 277-136 is notable for what's lacking.

Unlike seven other California airports designated as international ports-of-entry, Fresno Yosemite International Airport must pay for federal Customs and Border Patrol inspectors. The local cost approaches $2 million a year. In hopes of building support for getting Fresno off the hook, Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, authored an amendment ordering a study of the airport's costs.

"It's important to the city," said Bret Rumbeck, Costa's spokesman, "and the city has reached out to us on this issue for at least 10 months."

But the House Rules Committee, apparently because of a committee jurisdiction conflict, would not let the Fresno airport amendment come to a vote Thursday. The rules panel, whose members include Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, is powerful because it is the gateway to House floor action.

The Democratic leadership-controlled rules panel, for instance, likewise blocked an amendment that would have challenged new airport firefighter standards. As approved by the House, the FAA bill requires new aircraft rescue and firefighting standards to be written within six months. This could mean reinforced fire engine staffing or other changes favored by the International Association of Firefighters but worrisome to airport managers.

"That causes us some concern," Cifuentez said.

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, noted that airport firefighting standards "have not been updated for years," but he stressed that the revisions "should not impose undue burdens" on rural airports.

In past years, the FAA bill has incited debate over the Essential Air Services subsidy. Critics call it an unwarranted use of taxpayer dollars.

Nonetheless, the new bill increases annual Essential Air Services funding to $150 million from the current authorized level of $77 million. This will provide greater certainty for airports already being served, and potentially allow for expansion to other airports; currently, one-third of the airports served are in Alaska.

The existing Great Lakes Airlines regional service connecting Merced and Visalia with Ontario Airport in Southern California depends on the federal subsidy. Other small airports including Stockton and Modesto have received similar assistance in the past, although it's not always sufficient to maintain a route's viability.

The Merced and Visalia airports both currently receive roughly $1.5 million annually through the subsidy program.