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Congress passes long-awaited FAA reauthorization bill, sends to Biden for signature

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The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Federal Aviation Authority reauthorization bill on Wednesday, sending the bill to President Biden’s desk following last week’s bipartisan passage in the Senate.

The bill, which renews the FAA’s funding for five years and includes a range of safety measures, consumer protections and measures to go towards fixing the nation’s chronic shortage of air traffic controllers, grants more than $105 billion to the agency through fiscal year 2028.

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Along with funding the FAA’s various regulatory and safety-related functions, the bill cements new consumer protections surrounding the right of families with small children to be seated together without paying a fee, as well as rules mandating refunds for delayed and canceled flights, which were initially introduced as a rule by the Department of Transportation last month.

The new codified standards, which take effect this fall, require airlines to automatically refund passengers to their original form of payment if their flight is canceled or significantly delayed.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who was among several lawmakers who jointly filed a late amendment to the bill to include the refund requirements, told TPG on Tuesday that the senators saw the overwhelmingly positive public response to the announcement of the DOT rules, and saw an opportunity to cement them in the legislation. Warren’s comments came at Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) ahead of a flight to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).

A long-term reauthorization was widely expected to pass, but has been subject to more than a year of back-and-forth debate over various provisions and amounts, much of which occurred while the FAA was without a permanent director. Biden nominated Michael Whitaker to the role in September; he was confirmed by the Senate a month later.

“I am grateful to Congress for passing this long-term bipartisan legislation, which allows for more runway safety technology, more air traffic controllers, and stronger oversight of aircraft production,” Whitaker said in a statement to TPG. “It gives us the stability to ensure we carry out our mission to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world, even as we facilitate the aviation system of the future.”

The funding comes as the FAA steps up its regulatory responsibilities amid a safety crisis at U.S. planemaker Boeing. The agency has centered safety enforcement squarely in its sights since a Jan. 5 episode in which an unsecured piece of a Boeing 737 MAX 9 fell from an Alaska Airlines flight.

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The reauthorization bill also includes a variety of new safety provisions, including a section from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. calling on the agency to test evacuation standards on aircraft using more realistic conditions — including passengers who are disabled, and those traveling with infants. That standard has come into the spotlight following the prolonged evacuation of a Japan Airlines flight following a fiery crash at the start of this year.

“This FAA package is probably going to be one of the most significant legislative efforts in over a decade to improve the experience for passengers with disabilities,” Duckworth told TPG during a phone call on Tuesday, ahead of the House vote.

Other provisions include regulations surrounding the storage of wheelchairs aboard flights, along with a process for passengers with disabilities to pre-register service animals to smooth the process of going through airport security.

The reauthorization also provides funding for the hiring and training of more air traffic controllers, aimed at alleviating an ongoing critical shortage. The FAA has waived “slot” requirements at New York City and Washington, D.C.-area airports in recent years due to the shortage, something airlines have asked the agency to extend through at least 2025.

“For the first time in a long time, we fund the air traffic controller capacity at full capacity,” Duckworth said.

The bill also adds five new slot pairs to DCA that are exempted from the so-called 1,250-mile “perimeter rule,” which limits the distance of flights to and from the airport. It was not immediately clear which airlines would be awarded those slots, nor which cities they would use them to fly to.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, celebrated the passage of the provision in a statement to TPG.

Slots and perimeter rules, explained: The little-understood government rule that allows airlines to dominate certain airports

“Increasing flights to our Nation’s Capital doesn’t benefit one airport, one airline, or any one member of Congress; it creates an open door to Washington, D.C., for every American to see their government at work,” Owens said.

Some initial proposals had called for as many as 56 new slots — enough for 28 new round-trip flights — to be added at DCA, which were scaled back during negotiations.

Still, some objected to adding any new operations to the airport.

In a statement, the Coalition to Protect America’s Regional Airports (CPARA) described the airport as “overburdened” and said that 56 more flights would have created a safety risk.

In the end, the five additional slot pairs that were approved will add a total of 10 daily flights — or enough for five additional round trips.

“The ten additional daily DCA flights included in the final bill will undoubtedly lead to further delays, cancellations and congestion on America’s busiest runway,” the organization said.

Biden is expected to sign the bill in the coming days.



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