Days before the Federal Aviation Administration's program authority and funding would have expired on July 15, Congress sent President Obama a measure to reauthorize the agency at current funding levels through Sept. 30, 2017.
That carries the FAA through both the two and a half months remaining in the current fiscal year, and for an entire additional budget year.
It also reflects the inability of lawmakers to resolve differences over competing long-term reauthorization bills that had emerged from House and Senate committees. The one advancing in the House would have spun off the FAA's air traffic control operations and staff to a new nonprofit corporation, while the one in the Senate would have kept the FAA in charge of traffic control.
Instead, the House approved the short-term extension on July 11 by voice vote, and the Senate followed on July 13 with a roll call vote of 89 to 4.
While the short-term bill kept the FAA's structure intact, lawmakers used the measure to make a number of significant policy changes, some of which were in response to terrorist attacks on airports overseas.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, called the measure "the most significant airport security reform bill in over a decade." He said the "reforms in our bill will help ensure that attacks like those in Brussels and Istanbul do not happen in American airports."
That committee's ranking member, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the bill "will bolster security at many of our nation's airports and help us better protect the flying public."
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said the extension "provides stability to our aviation system over the next 14 months, and includes limited but critical and time-sensitive provisions to improve aviation safety and security . . . With this extension in place, Congress can continue to develop a long-term, comprehensive FAA bill that includes many additional reforms and improvements to our aviation system."
The T&I ranking member, Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said: "While I would have rather moved a comprehensive long-term FAA reauthorization, this legislation reflects a bipartisan compromise that provides more than a year of certainty and includes a number of time-sensitive safety and security provisions that will better protect our nation's airspace and air travelers."
Among its security provisions, a T&I bill summary said it tightens access controls and employee vetting standards for aviation workers who have access to secure and sterile areas of airports, "in order to mitigate the insider threat to aviation security."
It also authorizes additional security "prevention and response teams" and provides that "these teams are trained to assist transportation hubs in preparing for and responding to active shooter scenarios."
Its safety provisions include requirements for better marking of some air traffic control towers to improve their visibility to low-flying aircraft, and for the FAA to update standards for crash-resistant helicopter fuel systems in response to fatal accidents where the victims perished in post-crash fires.
Among its consumer protections is a provision that air carriers refund baggage fees when items are lost or unreasonably delayed.
It also streamlines the air traffic controller hiring process so the FAA can address chronic personnel shortages, sets new restrictions on the use of aerial drones in certain situations but streamlines processes and interagency cooperation to use the drones in emergencies such as disaster responses and wildfires.
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