Senate Set to Pass Bipartisan FAA Bill Without Air-Traffic Control Privatization
April 19, 2016
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  • The Senate is expected to approve a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that beefs up airport security, promotes widespread use of commercial drones and streamlines certification of new safety systems for private planes.

    The measure, which has prompted broad bipartisan support, also increases consumer protections for passengers and paves the way for tougher mental-health screening of commercial pilots.

    But as expected, it doesn’t follow the lead of House Republicans who want to shift the agency’s air-traffic control system and some 38,000 employees under the control of an independent, nonprofit corporation. Passage is anticipated later Tuesday.

    Many of the provisions tightening vetting of airport employees and beefing up public safety in areas before security screenings are partly a reaction to recent terrorist attacks, particularly last month’s bombing of Brussel’s main international airport and the suspected bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt four months earlier. Other parts of the final package reflect pent-up industry and consumer demand for expanding drone flights nationwide, including an aggressive timetable to permit package deliveries by unmanned aircraft within two years.

    But overall, the final language reflects the Senate’s determination to enact a more moderate bill than legislation pending on the other side of Capitol Hill, by rejecting House GOP ambitions  for a  sweeping overhaul of the structure and financing of the air-traffic control network.The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee previously approved a multiyear bill featuring such changes, but its prospects are increasingly uncertain.

    Even some staunch supporters of the House legislation recently acknowledged that the Senate’s strategy of hammering out a more limited bill—calling for an 18-month extension and making incremental changes to everything from bomb-detection equipment used overseas to greater disclosure of U.S. ticketing fees—appears likely to prevail.

    Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican and chairman of the committee that drafted the measure, has said it contains “the most passenger-friendly provisions, the most significant aviation safety reforms and the most comprehensive aviation safety enhancements” of any FAA bill “in recent memory.”

    The White House has raised objections to the relatively short 18-month time span and ambitious deadlines to swiftly incorporate unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace, but industry officials and lawmakers have said the Obama administration ultimately is likely to grudgingly accept the Senate’s policy choices. With the FAA’s funding and program authority due to expire in July, all sides are under pressure to avoid a repeat of numerous interim extensions in previous years.

    During roughly two weeks of debate, the Senate rejected amendments for increased legroom in jetliner cabins, as well as longer mandatory rest periods for cargo pilots and fast-track FAA rules for more crash-resistant helicopter fuel tanks. But in a long-sought victory for pilot union leaders, the Senate bill does incorporate language calling for jetliner manufacturers to install additional cockpit security barriers, consisting of movable metal gates that can be deployed when pilots temporarily step away from the controls.

    Similar to the House bill, Senators want to ensure that passengers receive a refund for fees when checked bags are delayed or missing, or for money paid for specific seat assignments that end up being unavailable.

    Rep. Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House transportation panel, has said he is studying the Senate bill and looking at options. House Democrats are largely opposed to wholesale air-traffic control changes, with some powerful GOP committee chairmen in the House joining the fight against Rep. Shuster’s measure.

    The Senate bill, among other things, calls for increased funding for enforcement efforts to keep drones away from airports; authorizes limited drone flights at night and outside the view of operators; and calls for updated FAA guidance to commercial pilots spelling out the hazards of undue reliance on cockpit automation.

    The Senate also is expected to mandate that the FAA pay more attention to cybersecurity threats when planning traffic-control modernization. And for the first time, the bill would require the agency to specifically detail economic benefits derived by airliners and other users of the nation’s airspace from mandated installation of updated equipment to reach that goal. The issue has been a point of contention for many years between regulators and airline industry officials.

    With regard to transportation of certain lithium batteries in the cargo holds of passenger planes, the bill calls for the FAA to work with industry representatives, pilot groups and international safety experts “to facilitate continued shipment of medical device batteries consistent with high standards of safety.”

    —Kristina Peterson contributed to this article.

    Write to Andy Pasztor at