House passes Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill

The House has passed a major federal aviation bill that aims to improve aviation safety, enhance protections for passengers and airline workers and invest in airport and air travel infrastructure nationwide.

The bill renewing the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority for five years will next head to President Joe Biden to be signed into law. The legislation passed the Senate last week.

The bill would authorize more than $105 billion in funding for the FAA, as well as $738 million for the National Transportation Safety Board for fiscal years 2024 through 2028.

Although the package has drawn broad bipartisan support, it touched off contentious debate over certain policy issues.

One flashpoint centered on a provision to add longer-distance flights at Reagan National Airport, just outside of Washington, DC. A group of Washington-area Democratic senators pressed to strip the provision from the package, though the chamber didn’t ultimately move to do so.

Some lawmakers argue additional flights would give consumers more choices and bring down prices, while others say it would increase congestion and delays at the airport, as well as create safety issues. Lawmakers commute most weeks between their home states and Washington, and many could benefit from more convenient flights back and forth.

Other key provisions of the legislation include:

The bill would require the FAA to hire and train as many air traffic controllers as possible to close a gap of 3,000 vacancies. It would also mandate more research into how many controllers are needed at each tower and center and would increase access to training simulators in more air traffic control towers nationwide.

To reduce the number of collisions and near-collisions on runways, the FAA would be required to install additional runway technology at medium and large hub airports.

The technology is only installed at about three dozen US airports, according to the FAA, and played a role in alerting controllers that American Airlines and Delta Air Lines passenger jets were about to collide on a John F. Kennedy airport runway in New York City in January 2023.

In April, the Department of Transportation finalized a new rule on airline refunds: They’re due in cash – rather than vouchers – within a few days, and come automatically. That means no requirement to call the airline and complain when your flight is canceled or substantially delayed.

The compromise FAA bill as proposed originally did not go as far as the new DOT rule, which raised the possibility that a future DOT leadership could strip the automatic refund rule. After an outcry – including from an alliance of Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – the bill’s negotiators returned to the drawing board and added the automatic component into the bill. Under the new language, if a passenger declines an airline’s rebooking request or does not respond to the request, the airline must issue an automatic refund.

The legislation would put more teeth behind rules against attacks on aviation workers, which spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic, by expanding legal protections to ground-based employees like gate and check-in agents.

It would also enhance Transportation Security Administration-taught self-defense training for flight attendants so they can better protect themselves and respond to unruly passengers and other threats.

Setting a standard for travel credits

Under the bill, travel credits issued by airlines in lieu of refunds would have to be useable for at least five years.

Commercial aircraft would have to carry 25-hour cockpit voice recorders under the legislation. That was a top ask of the NTSB and a substantial increase from the current two-hour standard.

The cockpit voice recorder is one of the two black boxes and is currently only required to capture two hours of sound from the cockpit. The NTSB says recordings that would be key to investigations have fallen outside the two-hour window and been overwritten.


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