The Senate on Wednesday approved a bipartisan bill to extend the mandate of the Federal Aviation Administration, two days before the agency’s legal authority was set to expire.
The House on Monday on a voice vote approved the same bill, which will authorize FAA programs at current funding levels through September 2017. The legislation, which the Senate passed by a vote of 89-4, now must go to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.
The compromise short-term extension includes many of the provisions Senate leaders had pushed for. It also presents a major setback for House GOP leaders by leaving out all references to removing air-traffic control operations from the FAA and placing them in a not-for-profit corporation. Some four dozen other nations already have taken that step.
Rep. Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was the most dogged supporter of the FAA corporatization plan, but ran into stiff opposition in the Senate and from some aviation industry groups. But the relatively brief extension of FAA authority means lawmakers could resume deliberations on a comprehensive and multiyear rewrite of FAA legislation after the November elections.
The bill also left out language related to streamlining FAA certification of new general-aviation aircraft and revising procedures for enhancing safety systems on existing models. The industry had been pressing hard for such changes. It also lacked rules to address flight-attendant fatigue.
But there were sweeteners for other groups, including consumers. The bill requires airlines to refund paid baggage fees when items are lost or unreasonably delayed, improve air travel for people with disabilities and ensure that children 13 years of age and younger are seated next to an adult or an older child traveling with them.
The bill expands the paid PreCheck program offered by the Transportation Security Administration to trusted travelers who can go through speedier security screening lanes at airport. It tightens access controls and employee vetting standards for aviation workers with access to secure areas at airports and requires security assessments of all overseas airports serving the U.S.
Air-traffic controller hiring processes are to be amended so that the FAA can better address chronic controller shortages. The bill directs the agency to address cybersecurity risks to the aviation system, strengthen mental-health screening for pilots and ensure that pilots are sufficiently trained in manual flying skills and know how to monitor cockpit automation systems. The FAA also is charged with developing new rules that would give private pilots exemptions from medical certification requirements under some conditions, regarded as a big win by the leading private-pilot industry trade group.
One provision of the bill directs the FAA to make it easier for unmanned aircraft, or drones, to be deployed during disaster responses and wildfires. Another is aimed at creating new processes to detect and mitigate unauthorized drone flights around airports and critical infrastructure. But some in the fast-growing drone industry have complained that the compromise bill doesn’t go far enough to accelerate expansion of commercial operations and doesn’t call for the FAA to lift restrictions on the smallest category of drones.