The Senate on Wednesday cleared a short-term Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) extension, sending the bill to the president’s desk just two days before the agency’s legal authority expires.
In a 90-4 vote, lawmakers easily passed legislation to authorize FAA programs at current funding levels through September 2017. The measure also contains a number of permanent policy add-ons to beef up airport security, ease long checkpoint lines and improve drone use.
“It’s a little more than a 14-month extension, but don’t let that fool you,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“It’s going to put into permanent law [provisions] bolstering security at our airports in order to help better protect us. And of course, in these times, the safety of our traveling public is a top priority.”
The House passed the bill by voice vote Monday.
The package was the product of months of negotiations between committee leaders and staff. The Senate passed a wide-ranging FAA bill earlier this year, while the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved its own measure that contained a controversial proposal to separate the nation’s air traffic control from the FAA.
But with the House unable to move its own version and unwilling to take up the Senate’s, committee leaders ultimately settled on a short-term patch.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to blame his colleagues across the Capitol for the “watered-down extension,” while praising Nelson and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Transportation Committee, for their work.
“I’m here in support of their efforts, and express my disappointment that their efforts were not rewarded,” Moran said. “We are left with a watered-down extension.”
But Thune painted a rosier picture about the final product Tuesday. He pointed out that even though the Senate passed a 400-page bill, the House was essentially pushing for a seven-page, clean extension, so it’s significant that they ended up with a 130-page measure.
“Obviously there was a lot of stuff left on the cutting room floor, but we think we preserved a lot of the really essential elements, particularly those related to security,” Thune told reporters.
The FAA bill would allow the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to donate unneeded screening equipment to foreign airports with direct flights to the U.S.; expand the TSA’s PreCheck program; tighten the vetting of airport employees; and increase the presence of special teams with bomb-sniffing dogs around airport perimeters.
The TSA has been grappling with two major terrorist attacks on airports abroad in recent months, as well as overwhelmed security lines this spring that resulted from reductions in staff.
Under the FAA bill, drone operators who interfere with firefighting missions would face civil penalties, while a new program would be established to detect and mitigate unauthorized operation of unmanned aircraft around airports and other critical infrastructure. Test sites for drones would be reauthorized through 2020.
The FAA extension would require air carriers to refund baggage fees when items are lost or delayed, require the Department of Transportation to issue a rule aimed at improving air travel for persons with disabilities and require airlines to ensure that children 13 years old or younger are seated adjacent to an adult or older child traveling with them.
The measure also would improve air traffic control hiring, help pilots better recognize victims of human trafficking and streamline the process for pilots in obtaining medical certificates.
“These reforms will provide relief to hundreds of thousands of pilots from an outdated, costly, and unnecessarily burdensome system,” said Mark Barker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which supported the provisions on third class medical reform. “This legislation will strengthen the private pilot-private physician relationship and improve awareness of medical issues throughout our community.”