FAA Assistant Administrator Bailey Edwards (right) being interviewed by the Washington Post's Damien Paletta. (Avionics International)
The U.S. Senate today voted 90-7 to end debate on the FAA reauthorization bill which would keep it funded for the next five years and prevent an agency shutdown next week. The final vote will occur later this week, at which the bill is expected to pass.
The bill, which provides nearly $90 billion in funding over its five-year course, passed in the House of Representative on Wednesday. Originally, the deadline for passage in the Senate was yesterday, but Senators agreed to a one-week extension on Friday.
Speaking Thursday at the Washington Post, Assistant FAA Administrator Bailey Edwards, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey (who notably voted against the bill's cloture today), Pennsylvania Representative Scott Perry and industry members discussed the impact the bill would have, if passed, on the aviation landscape.
"It’s always good when we can have long-term, stable funding,” Edwards said of the unusually long five-year funding providing by the bill. “It lets us plan long-term infrastructure.”
In the bill, Congress mandates that the FAA establish minimum seat size requirements for airlines, which the agency had been hesitant to do. It also ensures that “there will be no cell phones on planes where the passenger sitting next to you will be yakking the entire flight,” Markey said to robust applause. “I may go down in history for that one provision,” he added.
“At the FAA, our focus is on the safety side of things,” Edwards said, noting that “customer service things” such as cell phones and seat size are the purview of someone else. Nonetheless, the bill does require the FAA to put rules in place.
The bill also outlaws “arbitrary bumping” of passengers for overbooked flights, which Perry categorized as a win. Additional restrictions on the way airlines handle passengers, however, did not make it into the bill’s final version: notably, a ban on “unreasonable fees” was struck at what Markey called the eleventh hour due to a lack of political will.
“I’m a member of the traveling public just like everyone else and, newsflash to the airlines, we want to take our clothes with us and we don’t want to be penalized for it,” Perry said.
Senator Ed Marky and Representative Scott Perry (right), from the Congressional subcommittees on aviation, being interviewed by the Washington Post's Jacqueline Alemany. (Avionics International)
Markey said he “lost this round,” but would keep fighting, as the scrapped amendment was “dealing with the issue of consumers just being tipped upside down and having money shaken out of their pockets if they want to cancel a ticket, if they want to have an extra bag which goes onto a plane, if they want to change a flight. Increasingly, that’s where the airlines are seeing their ability to just gouge the customers.”
According to Markey, the additional fees are from the consolidation of operators in the aviation industry which provides airlines increased leverage to overcharge customers on such fees.
Up until now, there have been a lot of questions about whose jurisdiction drones fall under. That may persist, but the reauthorization bill provides support to the FAA in legislating UAS, with a focus on airspace integration and privacy. The FAA has interest in registering, tracking and identifying unmanned aircraft operators.
“Knowing who is in the air helps discern intent … when you can narrow the field, you really take care of a lot of safety-security concerns,” Edwards said.
Markey said the disagreements over whether they fall under the jurisdiction of the FAA, local law enforcement or someone else “creates a regulatory black hole, and that’s a problem.”
Ultimately, there needs to be a “drone czar” to oversee all things UAS, according to Markey, but for now, the legislative and judicial branches of government need to collectively work to figure out what to expect and put rules in place that protect people and their privacy “without industry’s ability to innovate hamstrung.”
David Silver, VP of Civil Aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, said late in the day that the efforts to integrate drone into the airspace have been primarily focused on 500 feet of altitude and below. That makes sense, “but there’s a danger, I think, if we look at it as a separate layer,” he said. “All of our systems have to operate seamlessly.” He pointed out that other traffic, such as emergency helicopters, delivery and takeoff and landing, all have to share the under-500-feet airspace as well, so it makes more sense to think of everything as a holistic airspace system rather than separate ones that do not interact.
Edwards spoke hopefully about new supersonic technology, around which the re-authorization bill requires the FAA to develop new regulations. He said that the landscape has changed considerably since the Concorde last flew 15 years ago and the regulations can change to reflect that.
“The Concorde was a loud airplane,” he said. “It had a hard time economically making sense; it was out of the reach of most Americans…. Manufacturers believe that not just airframe designs but also how you fly the airplane, you can have a mitigating effect on how loud that sound is.”
Edwards said the primary function is currently on transcontinental flight but that flying within the U.S. would also be looked at by the FAA. Regarding other countries, he largely shifted the responsibility to operators to work out the specifics, but said that the FAA’s role would be to ensure that the regulatory environment would be mutually recognized with the analogous bodies in other countries.
Speaking later in the day, John Clark, VP of advanced development programs at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, echoed Edwards’ comments, saying that the company’s X-59 “can attenuate the sonic boom, which will open up whole new commercial pathways.”
David Silver, VP of Civil Aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, said his organization is “very supportive of the language in the House bill” regarding supersonics.
These discussions were before the final bill was even passed, and many of the amendments have language providing the FAA a year or more to report back to Congress with plans, information or policy proposals before going ahead with anything. Some of the language was tempered—for example, the seat size amendment merely requires that a minimum be established, not that it be restrictive or change the industry’s status quo—but the FAA will clearly be working to enable advancement on emerging technologies such as drones and supersonic travel in the coming years.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that today's vote was on the bill itself rather than cloture.