The House will vote next week on a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and change disaster relief policy to focus more on mitigation than recovery.
In a statement Wednesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster said the House would vote on an aviation bill that would reauthorize the FAA through fiscal 2023 as well as include provisions of a bill previously passed by the House that makes changes to Federal Emergency Management Administration policy.
Shuster, R-Pa., introduced the bill last week after accepting that a version he wrote last year and moved through committee would not have enough votes to pass because it included a provision to remove the air traffic control system from the government. The new bill won’t include the air traffic control spinoff.
In a Wednesday interview, Shuster said the new bill had provisions to improve air traffic control operations.
He pointed to a provision to require a report on the agency’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, a program to overhaul air traffic control technology. The report would have to include the FAA’s plans to improve community involvement in NextGen and how it will put in place “performance-based navigation proposals.”
Shuster, as well as the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation Inspector General, have criticized the FAA’s implementation of NextGen for taking longer than expected and being over-budget.
How Congress’ Schedule Is Supposed to Work
Shuster said he didn’t expect changes to the bill based on the passenger who died as a result of a Southwest Airlines accident. It was the first fatality involving a U.S. commercial carrier in nine years, he noted.
“A terrible tragedy,” he said. “And one life is too much – but air travel is extremely safe.”
Shuster said House leadership decided to attach the disaster policy bill because it’s a “must-pass bill.”
The House passed the disaster bill in December, but the Senate did not take it up.
McCarthy, R-Calif., emphasized the impact of several 2017 disasters, including wildfires in his home state.
“Americans are standing together to support affected communities as they rebuild so they come back stronger from these disasters and are better prepared for the future,” he said. “Next week the House will support those efforts as part of FAA reauthorization and give FEMA the tools and oversight needed to strengthen their response to disasters.”
The bill focuses on provisions meant to improve pre-disaster planning and mitigating disasters when they do happen. It would add resiliency to the allowable uses of FEMA hazard mitigation funding and would allow grants for infrastructure and economic development to be used for disaster mitigation. It also would expands the list of authorized activities that count as hazard mitigation.
Other than removing the air traffic control spinoff, the aviation bill remains largely unchanged from last year’s version, and it has broad support in its current form, though members are expected to introduce dozens of amendments. The House Rules Committee will decide what amendments to make in order on the bill next week.
Shuster said Wednesday he would introduce a manager’s amendment and could be open to supporting amendments, but said in general he hoped the House would vote on the bill more or less as it was introduced.
“I prefer to keep it as we drafted,” he said, when asked about potential drone amendments. “But if somebody’s got a good idea then we’ll certainly take a look at it.”
The deadline for members to provide House Rules with amendments to the bill is 2 p.m. Thursday. As of Wednesday evening, members had filed 40 amendments.
Members filed 150 amendments to last year’s bill, a Shuster aide said. The chairman said he would likely have to work against some on the latest bill.
“I’m sure there’ll be some stuff that I don’t want to see but I don’t know specifically,” he said.
House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said this week he supported the bill in its current form. He said, however, he would add a provision to allow airports to charge a higher passenger facility charge, the revenue airports use to pay for construction improvements.
“It doesn’t allow airports to assess a higher passenger facility charge, which means that we’re going to have delays because there’s no place to put the planes and get the people off,” he said. “That’s shortsighted thinking on the part of the airlines to oppose that.”
DeFazio said he didn’t know if he would offer any amendments.
Sen. John Thune, the chairman of Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Wednesday the major issue would be keeping tax-related provisions out of the House bill or his companion bill.
“I think probably the biggest challenge we have every year with it is there’s a tax title and that’s a magnet for a lot of shenanigans,” he said. “Because everybody who has anything they want to do on taxes comes at it because there’s just not that many vehicles.”
Thune, R-S.D., said he hoped the Senate would act on its own bill after the House measure passed. The Thune-sponsored bill would authorize the FAA through 2021 — two years shorter than the House version — and doesn’t include the disaster title.
His staff and Shuster’s staff have been discussing differences in the bills to have the issues vetted ahead of any conference committee, Thune said. Some differences will linger, he said, but the advance work could allow for speedier reconciliation.
The Senate bill is “very bipartisan” other than a partisan provision that would loosen training requirements for commercial co-piloting licenses that Democrats object to, Thune said. He added if that issue is addressed, it would bode well for passage.
Thune introduced the training requirement amendment to address a pilot shortage among small, regional airlines. He has said he anticipated an executive-branch fix to that issue that would make him comfortable dropping the language from the bill.
Current authority for the FAA expires Sept. 30.
The House bill includes provisions related to consumer protections, including banning e-cigarettes and cellphone calls on planes, requiring lactation rooms in commercial airports, and setting up a committee to study how to better serve customers with disabilities.
The bill would also clarify there is no maximum amount airlines can offer as compensation for passengers to entice them to give up a seat on an overbooked flight. The bill would make it an unfair business practice for an airline to remove a passenger from a plane if the passenger was checked in properly.
It also includes provisions long-sought by the aviation manufacturing industry to speed up and simplify the safety certification process. The industry group General Aviation Manufacturers Association praised the certification language, saying they would make manufacturers more globally competitive.
Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, was similarly enthused about drone provisions in the bill, which are unchanged from last year’s version.
“We are pleased the provisions for unmanned aircraft systems in the House FAA reauthorization bill will help expand the commercialization of the technology and ensure that UAS are integrated into the national airspace in a manner that is safe for all aircraft — both manned and unmanned,” he said.
The drone subtitle of the bill would reauthorize testing sites and require the FAA to establish a risk-based permitting procedure for the use of drones, develop regulations to allow delivery drones, and grant waivers to allow operation beyond a user’s line of sight, over people and at night, among other things.