A new FAA reauthorization bill is nearly across the finish line, but the Senate still has to finalize its own version when Congress returns from its annual recess in September.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to pass its version of a crucial bill to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for five more years. Next, the Senate needs to finalize its own version, and the two sides need to work out differences by September 30. Miss the deadline, and Congress would need to approve an extension.
Beyond funding, the reauthorization is important because it will include several provisions about consumer protections and airline safety, some of which have proven controversial.
Here are five important things to know about this year’s FAA reauthorization process, and what happens now.
1. New Consumer Protections
A big part of the FAA reauthorization involves improving the travel experience for consumers. This effort takes center stage after widespread cancellations, operational meltdowns and staffing shortages have tested travelers’ patience.
For now, the House bill is generally less specific when it lays out how airlines would have to handle consumer complaints than the Senate bill in progress.
Both the White House and Senate Democrats have both been pushing back on so-called surprise “junk fees” that drive up the ultimate costs of airline tickets. Ahead of the House vote, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said it opposed provisions in that bill that “would reverse important gains made by this administration to combat junk fees in the airline industry and would eliminate long standing consumer protections.” The office urged the House to keep current rules about fare disclosures.
Both bills would prohibit airlines from charging fees to sit families with children together, but have different language about several other protections.
Some new consumer protection provisions in the House version of the bill include:
- Requiring the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection to maintain a website to receive complaints from travelers, as well as making efforts to notify the public that it exists
- Requiring the transportation secretary to periodically consider phone apps and other technologies to receive complaints
- Allowing airlines to advertise base fares as long as they “clearly and separately” include taxes and fees and total cost
Meanwhile, the Senate is pushing for airlines to:
- Offer refunds for significantly delayed flights (three hours for domestic, six for international) within a week after the refund request when using a credit card, and within 20 days for other forms of payment
- Display a link to a refund portal at the top of their website, as well as monitor a 24/7 chat line or text number to help travelers facing problems
- Clearly display information about passenger rights, and provide links to government resources for refunds and consumer protections on flight itineraries
- Disclose “critical ancillary fees” before booking, which would include charges for a carry-on and the first two checked bags, plus change and cancel fees
- Establishing “dashboards” about family seating policies, seat size and delays or cancellations
- Be held accountable for any “unrealistic or deceptive” scheduling
To enforce these new protections, the Senate bill would double the civil penalty for consumer violations to $50,000. The Senate also wants to confirm an assistant secretary for the aviation consumer protection office.
2. Training Time For Pilots
While the House bill would include several measures aimed at improving airport safety and modernizing the national airspace system, one point in particular has delayed the bill in the past few months.
A contentious proposal to change criteria for pilot training postponed a Senate committee markup scheduled in June, and still looks to be one of the key issues affecting how fast the chamber can work toward a final bill.
The House had been considering a change to the way pilots would be able to complete the 1,500 hours of flight time they need to fly for a commercial airline. However, the change was not included in the final version of the bill.
Currently, pilots can log 100 hours in a simulator as part of the 1,500 hour requirement. The scrapped proposal would have allowed an additional 150 hours in a simulator.
The debate is whether allowing more simulator time would affect safety. This so-called “1,500 rule” came after a Colgan Air crash killed 50 people in 2009. Commercial pilots previously were only required to complete 250 hours of flight time.
Proponents of the rule change say it could help with airline staffing issues. For example, Republic Airways unsuccessfully asked the FAA last year to waive the requirement in light of pilot shortages. Meanwhile, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) union representing more than 74,000 pilots argues that proposed changes to training requirements would undermine safety.
On the Senate side, Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, said the pilot training issue must be resolved for that committee to move forward with the bill, Reuters reported.
The proposal has come under fire from veteran helicopter pilot Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, who condemned a separate pilot training amendment.
“A vote to reduce the 1,500 rule for pilot training will be blood on your hands when an inevitable accident occurs as a result of an inadequately trained flight crew,” Duckworth told her Senate colleagues on June 15.
3. Retirement Age For Pilots
Lawmakers have also disagreed on a proposal to increase the maximum age for pilots from 65 to 67.
Unlike the pilot training proposal, the House did keep this mandate in the bill it passed before the recess.
4. Long-Distance Flights at Washington National Airport (DCA)
The industry will be watching to see whether the Senate will give further consideration to the idea of adding more long-distance flights from the restricted Washington National Airport (DCA).
The airport, connected to greater Washington, D.C.’s metro system, is by far the most convenient way to fly into the capital.
The space-constrained airport limits nonstop flights to those within a 1,250-mile radius of the airport, except for the 40 daily flights exempt from the rule.
The House did not include an amendment to add more long-distance flights in its version of the bill.
A Senate committee previously reached a deal to add four long-distance flights from the airport, the Washington Post reported in mid-June.
Among the senators pushing to relax the perimeter rule has been Republican Senator Ted Cruz, while Democratic Senator Joe Manchin issued a letter that said changing the perimeter rule would create “serious concern.”
Airlines have mixed feelings about the issue. American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and United Airlines issued a joint statement denouncing changes to the perimeter rule, while Spirit Airlines and Delta Air Lines have proposed ways to add longer flights from the popular airport.
5. Conditions For Airport Service Workers
Airport service workers are calling upon the Senate to include certain wage and benefit standards in their version of the bill after the House did not include them in its own version.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) claimed the House version of the bill “was written by and for corporations – not working people.”
The SEIU is urging the Senate to consider an act that would block hub airports from federal funding unless they provide airport service workers benefits and a salary of $15 per hour or the local minimum wage — whichever is higher.
Photo credit: Capitol, Washington D.C. Harold Mendoza / Unsplash