The U.S. Senate has passed a bill to reauthorize the FAA ahead of the extended Oct. 5 deadline, providing five years of funding for the agency for the first time in 36 years. The bill, which has been largely supported by industry, passed 93-to-6 and is expected to be quickly signed into law by President Donald Trump.
Highlights of the bill, which can be read about here, include direction provided to the FAA on supersonic aircraft regulation and drones. One notable section cut from the final version includes sought-after legislation to privatize air traffic management.
On commercial flights, airlines will no longer be allowed to arbitrarily bump passengers from overbooked flights, and a ban on in-flight cell phone conversations will be instituted. However, the prohibition of “unreasonable” fees by airlines was struck from the bill before its passage through Congress.
The ultimate version of the bill passed through the House of Representative Sept. 26. The Senate gave itself a one-week extension Friday, before voting Monday for cloture, an end to debate on the bill’s contents ahead of today's final vote.
“In creating new protections and enhancements for the flying public, this bill creates five years of stable policy direction for the aviation community,” said South Dakota Senator John Thune, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “Travelers, utilizing small and large airports, will benefit from investments in infrastructure, more efficient security screening, and the prompt return of fees for services they don’t receive. Innovators also get a needed boost from provisions enhancing the competitiveness of our aircraft manufacturers and the continued integration of unmanned aircraft into our airspace.”
The committee’s minority leader, Florida’s Bill Nelson, concurred.
“There’s a lot to like in this bill, especially if you’re fed up with shrinking airline seats,” said Nelson. Despite the FAA’s reluctance to weigh in on the issue, Congress mandated in the bill that a minimum airline seat be established. That said, it did not specify any particular size, so the FAA is unlikely to reverse the current trend of smaller seats with its policy on the matter.
California Democrat Diane Feinstein, whose state plays host to a great deal of aviation and innovation, also released a statement supporting the bill’s passage.
“This long-term FAA reauthorization not only keeps the air traffic control system up and running, it includes a number of important reforms to better protect travelers, workers and our communities,” she said, before delving into the counter-UAS amendments in the bill, which are particularly relevant to firefighters in California, who have previously been delayed in their efforts when unauthorized drones flew into their airspace.
“The bill also increases the penalties for flying drones near first responders fighting wildfires, prohibits weapons on drones and helps combat the use of drones to smuggle contraband across the border or into prisons.”
Not every senator spoke in purely glowing terms, though. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who voted against cloture Monday and has been an outspoken proponent of greater restrictions on airlines, lamented “deficiencies” in the bill.
“Congress has missed an historic (sic), once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop gargantuan airlines from gouging Americans with exorbitant fees every time they fly,” he said. “It is Congress’ obligation to protect the public from abusive practices that harm consumers. Instead, after a ferocious lobbying blitz by the airline industry, the airlines won, and passengers lost. The result: airline fees remain sky high and frustration with the modern flying experience continues to grow.”
Markey expressed support for many of the bill’s other amendments, including the ban on cell phones and the regulation of drone operation.
In industry, most organizations which have released statements or shared opinions have supported the bill. The losses for industry, such as the consumer protections as it relates to airlines, are relatively minor. Many in the industry supported the privatization of air traffic management, which did not pass, but enough industry- and innovation-friendly language remains in the bill to keep most parties happy, it seems.
“This reauthorization bill provides significant improvements for general aviation and the helicopter industry specifically,” said Matt Zuccaro, Helicopter Association International president and CEO. “The helicopter industry faces a severe pilot and mechanic shortage, and this bill provides important solutions to help address this critical industry issue. Additionally, the bill addresses needed reform to FAA regulations pertaining to training programs at aviation maintenance technician schools.
Zuccaro also applauded the bill’s clarity on the integration of UAS into the national airspace and crash-resistant fuel systems, which he cited as an important helicopter safety issue.
Other groups supporting the bill have been pleased that the motion to privatize ATM did not survive, including the FAA Managers Association.
“Our air traffic control system is the largest, safest, and most complex in the world,” said FAAMA President Andy Taylor. “We can maintain this excellent record of safety and efficiency, and complete NextGen deployment, without engaging in transformational change.”
Other groups that have released statements in support of the FAA Reauthorization Bill’s passage through Congress include the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the General Aviation Manufacturer’s Association and the Alliance for Aviation Across America.
Most notable among groups who have come out in opposition to the bill are drone hobbyist groups such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). Because the bill requires additional registration and knowledge tests for operation of drones that previously fell were exempted under 336, the AMA has been campaigning through videos and on Twitter against the language in the bill that it says “could have a negative impact on” the hobby, in the words of Executive Director Chad Budreau.