A Senate panel moved ahead Thursday with a long-term aviation bill that does not contain President Trump’s controversial proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government.
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved legislation by voice vote that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for four years, after adopting a pair of controversial amendments regarding pilot training hours and trucker meal and rest breaks.
The measure now heads to the Senate floor, where the timing remains uncertain. Lawmakers are up against the clock, as the FAA’s legal authority expires at the end of September.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the panel, said the timeline for floor consideration will hinge on when they finish with their healthcare bill and whether the upper chamber can come to a swift agreement on the FAA bill.
“I had hoped we could get this [done] in the July work period. … That’s uncertain at this point,” Thune told reporters after the markup. “The number of days we have before August break is somewhat limited, and the things we have to do are time consuming.”
Assuming the House and Senate are each able to pass their versions of the FAA bill, lawmakers will also have to hash out dramatic differences between the two pieces of legislation.
The House reauthorization contains the spinoff proposal backed by Trump, but there wasn’t enough support for the idea in the Senate.
“There’s a lot of work ahead of us,” Thune said.
One major sticking point that senators will have to address before the FAA bill even gets to the floor is an amendment from Thune that would change requirements for the 1,500-hour pilot training rule.
Thune’s provision would allow pilots to receive training credit through alternative means, as long as the FAA deems it to be safe. Thune said he introduced the amendment to help address pilot shortages, and stressed that the provision would put a greater emphasis on the quality of training hours instead of just quantity.
But it’s a sensitive subject for some lawmakers, especially for those who had constituents die in the 2009 Colgan Air crash, in which pilot error was to blame. Victims’ family members, who were present at Thursday’s markup, have been lobbying Congress for years to enact stricter regulations for regional air carriers.
Democrats worry that pilots will receive inadequate training, such as sitting in a ballroom watching a training video, under the proposed changes from Thune.
Sen. Bill Nelson, (D-Fla.) ranking member on the panel, also warned that Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) would block the FAA bill from moving forward on the floor if the pilot training language was included.
Thune vowed to work on compromise language with Democrats before floor debate. He told reporters that some ideas had started to come together Thursday morning, when he spoke to Schumer and others about the issue outside of the committee room.
“We’ll see if there is a path forward,” Thune said. “Hopefully, having this as part of the mark will give us an opportunity to negotiate.”
The other controversial amendment added to the FAA bill was from Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) to provide uniformity across the country when it comes to meal and rest breaks for truck drivers.
Democrats, who have fought to keep similar provisions out of other bills in the past, worry that it will deny states the ability to require paid meal and rest breaks for truckers.
The Senate panel was, however, able to agree on dozens of other amendments that were adopted en bloc.
The underlying FAA bill would speed up modernization efforts at the FAA, protect rural and general aviation interests and overturn a court ruling that said the FAA doesn’t have the power to force recreational drone users to register their aircraft with the government.
The measure would also ban airlines from involuntarily removing customers from a flight after they have already boarded, unless it’s a matter of safety or security. The provision comes in direct response to a passenger being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight earlier this year.
The incident sparked international outrage and put a spotlight on the industry’s customer service policies, fueling a push in Congress to establish new passenger rights.
Other consumer protections included in the FAA bill include requiring a study on seat size, banning voice calls on flights, ensuring that change and cancellation fees are reasonable, requiring a review of airline cancellations and delays, and mandating a study on the best practices for travelers with disabilities.