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House clears FAA bill for Biden

Measure includes new slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

A Delta Air Lines jet flies past the Capitol dome as it approaches Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on February 18.
A Delta Air Lines jet flies past the Capitol dome as it approaches Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on February 18. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House on Wednesday cleared legislation that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration at $105 billion over five years, sending it to President Joe Biden’s desk well before a Friday deadline.

The 387-26 vote brings to a close eight months of negotiations and dissent over aviation policies that required four extensions of the agency’s current funding authority since the original Sept. 30, 2023, deadline.

The measure would increase authorizations for FAA operations to $66.7 billion total over the term, starting at $13 billion for fiscal 2024, which ends on Sept. 30. That’s up from $11.5 billion in fiscal 2023. From there, topline authorizations reach $14 billion for operations in fiscal 2028.

It would also boost authorizations for the Airport Improvement Program, which funds new infrastructure, to $4 billion a year, the first increase for a program that’s been set at $3.4 billion annually for the past 10 years.

“The majority of that money is going to be going to medium and small airports which means more airports getting needed construction dollars,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., told reporters after the vote. “The [legislative] process can work. If it’s done correctly, then just look at the work that’s going to come out of this piece of legislation.”

Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement that the bill will boost the numbers of air traffic controllers, improve pilot training, and benefit travelers. “Consumers get hassle-free refunds and the guaranteed family seating they’ve been asking for. Local economies get a boost from expanding airports and airport capacity,” she said.

Although the bill is typically the only major aviation legislation that goes through Congress, Cantwell has previously said she intends to announce additional aircraft certification and safety legislation stemming from recent incidents involving Boeing Co. planes.

The Senate Homeland Security Investigations Subcommittee has also launched its own probe into the aircraft manufacturer.

Slots debate, traffic controllers

The final FAA bill made it through both chambers while retaining contentious language that would add 10 total flight slots per day — five in and five out — at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Lawmakers from areas surrounding the airport said that the slots would overwhelm an already at-capacity airport, while others argue the extra flights would open the D.C. area to more tourism.

The huge bill, at more than 1,000 pages, also includes provisions aimed at improving aviation safety, integrating technologies like drones into the national airspace and addressing certain aviation workforce shortages.

The measure would require the FAA to make its hiring target for air traffic controllers equal to the maximum number of trainees that can be taught at the FAA Academy. The number of air traffic controllers has severely declined in the past decade or so, a shortage that Congress has linked to a number of close-call airplane collisions.

Aviation and engineering unions have applauded other workforce language in the bill, including provisions that would require the FAA to update its aviation safety inspector model to boost hiring of safety inspectors and other specialists. The bill would also expand the Aviation Workforce Development Grant Program to include hiring and training of the aviation manufacturing workforce.

“The human infrastructure of aviation is reflected in the . . . aviation workforce development grants that we put in,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said to reporters Wednesday. “Having the next generation of the aviation workforce in place is important — in manufacturing, in maintenance, in tech and pilots. We didn’t leave the human element behind.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, a pilot union, praised lawmakers for striking a proposal in the previous House-passed version, that would’ve raised the pilot retirement age from 65 to 67 years old. Proponents had pitched it as a temporary solution to a pilot shortage, but the union argued it would put the U.S. out of compliance with international standards.

To promote the adoption of unmanned aircraft systems like drones into the national airspace, the bill would expand use of beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations and establish a program to provide grants to support the use of small UAS for more efficient inspection, operations and construction of infrastructure. It also would require the FAA to collaborate with agencies to create a plan to use UAS in wildfire response efforts.

Related: FAA bills would help launch drones to battle wildfires

The bill includes provisions aimed at improving the airline passenger experience. It would codify rules requiring the FAA to ensure airlines provide reimbursements for delays and certain cancellations, and promulgate a rule requiring air carriers to allow children to be seated near their parents at no extra cost.

On safety, the measure’s language would bolster efforts to monitor airport ground activities — another provision aimed at preventing runway incursions — and strengthen FAA’s inspection and certification activities, among others.

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