FAA bill has good, bad news for valley

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.

Stiffer firefighting requirements worry cost-conscious airport managers. Fresno Yosemite International Airport advocates failed in their bid for federal reimbursements.

The 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. For instance, the bill 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 needs Senate approval and further negotiations, requires new training for flight attendants on dealing with drunks.

In some cases, the bill is notable for what is lacking.

Unlike seven other California airports designated as international ports of entry, Fresno Yosemite International 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, wrote an amendment ordering a study of the airport's costs, but it was blocked by the House Rules Committee.

The Democratic -controlled rules panel 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.

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

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 being served and potentially allow for expansion to other airports.

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

The Merced and Visalia airports receive about $1.5 million annually through the subsidy program.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.