Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the bill's main sponsor, said the private planes of U.S. general aviation account for more than 90 percent of the aircraft registered in the country. They, and the 5,300 airports that support them, have faced stiffer restrictions than commercial airlines, and for a longer time, he said. Private planes are still forbidden to fly within 25 miles of Washington or New York City.
"Congress has acted swiftly to stabilize the commercial airline industry; now it's time to help our small general aviation businesses," Shuster said.
Rep. Robert Hayes, R-N.C., said flight schools and other operations provide a vital pool of skilled pilots for business and commercial aviation. Reps. Mike Honda, D-Calif., Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., and Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., all serving on the House Transportation Committee with Shuster and Hayes, also support the bill.
The bill would authorize the Small Business Administration to issue grants reimbursing airport operators, flight schools and other businesses for losses incurred as a result of the flight ban. Longer-term aspects of the bill include a one-year "no-interest, no-payment" period for loans to affected businesses, as well as extending deadlines for certain excise taxes that apply to general aviation.
Shuster estimated the grants could total about $250 million, and the total package would come in at about $450 million. He couldn't say how the bill would fare in the current crush of anti-terrorist and stimulus legislation before Congress, but he hoped the measure could become part of any economic recovery package.
Stanley Rodenhauser, owner and operator of the Freeway Airport between Washington and Annapolis, Md., said the site, normally worth $1 million in planes and facilities, has been worthless since the ban started. Shuster's bill, he said, would provide enough help to keep his business going until flights could start again.
A separate piece of legislation announced Thursday by Reps. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., Christopher Shays, R-Conn., Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, would mandate security screening for all baggage on domestic flights -- not just carry-ons as is the case today. Signed by 10 other House members, the bill would also subject airport workers on the flight line to tighter screening, Inslee said.
"Congress will have to keep coming back and spending billions more to keep the airlines afloat unless the flying public regains its confidence in the security system," Markey said. "This bill will help restore their confidence."
Inslee said he envisions use of the same technology that currently scans the bags going on international flights. The scanners are among the systems installed at Washington's Reagan National Airport to allow the facility to reopen. Their individual price tag is in the $1 million range, but Inslee didn't have any projections as to how much it would cost to place them at check-in counters at every U.S. airport.
Shays said passengers would accept a larger security surcharge to pay for the systems. Inslee said the funding mechanisms in the current airline safety bill could handle the scanners' additional cost.
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