Senate gives final approval for FAA reauthorization, sends bill to White House

By:  Ashley Halsey III
Source: The Washington Post

The Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to a long-sought five-year reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration, sending the legislation to the White House for President Trump’s signature.

The bill passed the Senate by a 93-to-6 vote after six extensions that kept the FAA’s funding at a level first set in 2012. The most recent of them came last week as lawmakers were in turmoil over Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. Lawmakers circled back a day after Thursday’s tumultuous Kavanaugh hearing to extend funding for week so that the FAA did not run out of cash.

“This is something we’ve been trying to do for many years,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), noting that a five-year bill had not been passed since the 1980s. “It’s really a big, major deal.” 

In addition to keeping programs such as the $36 billion NextGen program afloat and paying the FAA’s 14,000 air traffic controllers, the bill tweaks airline regulations, sets additional guidelines for drone aircraft and provides funding for the Transportation Security Administration. 

It also strives to make flying a more pleasant experience for airline passengers. The bill: 

  • Bars airlines from bumping a passenger who already has been seated on the airplane.
  • Requires the FAA to set minimums for seat width and the distance between rows of seats.
  • Says that passengers must be allowed to check strollers when flying with a small child and that pregnant passengers can board ahead of others.
  • Lets the Transportation Department determine whether airlines are shading the truth when they say “that a flight is delayed or canceled due to weather alone” if other factors entered into the decision.
  • Requires airlines to refund fees to passengers for things they do not receive.
  • Makes it illegal to put a live animal in an overhead bin. This change comes after a dog suffocated in March when a United flight attendant insisted that its carrier be stored overhead rather than underneath the flier’s seat.
  • Creates a position of aviation consumer advocate.
  • Gives flight attendants a 10-hour rest period between flights, rather than eight hours, from the time their flight touches down until their next takeoff. 
  • Instructs the secretary of transportation to create an “Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights” to ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect, that their wheelchairs or other necessary equipment are accommodated, and that they receive appropriate seat assignments. 
  • Prohibits cellphone calls on planes. 

“Keeping phone conversations off commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but surely it is enshrined in common sense,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in a statement. “Stop and think about what we hear now in airport lobbies from those who wander around shouting personal details into their phones: babbling about next week’s schedule, orders to an assistant, or arguments with spouses.” 

A provision that could have curbed airline fees was cut from the bill in the House-Senate conference committee. It would have designated the secretary of transportation to determine whether fees were “reasonable” and proportional to the cost to the airlines for the service. Removal of that provision — and protecting fees airlines collect, last year totaling $2.86 billion in ticket-change fees and almost $4.6 billion in baggage fees — was the No. 1 objective of airline lobbyists, and their success was lamented Tuesday by one of the provision’s authors. 

“The airline lobby knew they could count on Congress to do their bidding,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who voted against the measure. “This is price gouging in its purest form.” 

The bill sent to the White House also instructs the FAA to prepare for a return to supersonic air travel and to create an Office of Spaceports. The office would provide oversight for the state and local concerns that have been launching rockets, most of them privately owned, into space. 

The FAA also is instructed to provide greater regulation of drones. The bill would allow the government to shoot down a drone that “is identified as high-risk and a potential target for unlawful unmanned aircraft activity.” 

It provides grants for airports and allows them to use third-party facilities to train bomb-sniffing dogs rather than relying solely on federal training facilities. 

“Yes, they are a deterrent in and of themselves,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said on the Senate floor, in reference to the trained dogs, “and they help us speed up lines, but they also are there to detect the use of explosives or other materials, and they are doing an unbelievable job.” 

The bill also tells the FAA to take a thorough look at cockpit security, considering whether a protective screen might be put in place when pilots use the restroom at the front of the plane. 

An amendment to the bill also creates a $1.68 billion relief fund for those affected by Hurricane Florence and other natural disasters.