Senate Approves Bill to Reauthorize FAA Programs Through September 2017

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The Senate passed a bill reauthorizing Federal Aviation Administration programs through Sept. 30, 2017, and unlike in a House committee measure senators voted to keep air traffic control within the FAA.

Senators voted 95 to 3 April 19 for the measure that would promote commercial use of aerial drones, and strengthen some aviation security provisions and passenger protections regarding airline operations.

It did not authorize individual airports to increase their local passenger facility charges to help finance capital improvements, as the airport industry wanted.

State departments of transportation have strong interests in the FAA legislation. Some directly oversee their rural or large airports and help finance their runway or terminal improvements by awarding federal and state funds. All the DOTs have to plan airport ground transportation routes into their highway construction and maintenance programs.

The Wall Street Journal said the Senate measure would tighten vetting of airport employees and beef up security in public areas outside of flight security screenings. It also said the bill includes "an aggressive timetable to permit package deliveries by unmanned aircraft within two years."

USA Today reported that the Senate bill would also require the DOT to standardize airline processes for disclosing ancillary fees on baggage, flight changes and seat selection – areas of consumer complaints in recent years – and require some refunds when airlines do not perform as required.

Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the chairman and ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee who managed the bill through the chamber, said it now heads to the House.

There, leaders have yet to move to the floor a controversial, six-year FAA bill that advanced out the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in February, largely on a party-line vote. It would have carved air traffic control out of the FAA and given it to a new nonprofit corporation.

The Senate bill, said Thune, "does more to enhance security against the threat of terrorism and help frustrated passengers than any proposal in recent history. We should not delay action on security enhancements in this bill or public safety benefits from the proper management of drones," he added." The FAA bill answers these challenges while providing passengers with more options when airlines don't deliver."

Said Nelson: "We've given the House a good bipartisan blueprint to follow and one that they ought to pass easily. Adding controversial measures could put the bill in jeopardy and result in a big loss for consumers and for the safety of the flying public."

Separately, the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a report accompanying its fiscal 2017 bill to fund the Department of Transportation, said "the attempt to remove the air traffic control system from the FAA is fraught with risk, could lead to uncontrollable cost increases to consumers and could ultimately harm users of and operators in the system, including the flying public, the aviation community, FAA's workforce and the small towns in rural America that rely on access to the national air space."

The report added: "The committee strongly believes that air traffic control should remain an inherently governmental function where the Air Traffic Control Organization [ATO] is subject to ongoing congressional oversight so that resource needs and activities are reviewed. The annual congressional oversight process is best suited to protect consumers and preserve access to urban, suburban and rural communities. The Senate affirmed this position by not including any structure changes to privatize the air traffic control system in the recent passage of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016."

Senate appropriators encouraged a quick resolution to this issue, but warned what could happen if it continues. "The committee is confident that the able leadership of the authorizing committees can reach an expeditious resolution to a multi-year authorization bill while avoiding a prolonged and contentious fight over removing the ATO from the FAA. Given the growing congressional opposition to removing the ATO from the FAA," the report said, "the committee will prohibit funding for this purpose should there be any effort to bypass the will of Congress."

As to the Senate's FAA authorization bill, U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said it "includes many sensible provisions for improving air travel."

Dow noted that the bill would direct the Government Accountability Office – the auditing unit of Congress – to "review alliances among air carriers that are currently immune from antitrust prosecution, and the potential impact of such agreements on airfares and airline competition."

He added that "increasing competition in the aviation marketplace is critical to improving the flying experience for all travelers to and within the U.S."

The measure includes a separate piece of legislation that allows the Transportation Security Administration to expand its "PreCheck" trusted traveler program, which could speed more arriving passengers through special-access gates and reduce backups at the airport security lines.

"Expanding TSA PreCheck is a smart security move that will give approved travelers the efficient, 21st-century screening process they deserve," Dow said. "Opening opportunities for the private sector to partner with TSA on promoting and expanding this valuable program is simply a win-win."

But Dow said USTA is disappointed that senators did not raise the cap on local passenger facility charges. "Allowing airports the ability to modestly increase the cap on the PFC for the first time since 2000 would pave the way for much-needed infrastructure improvements at our airports that ultimately benefit flyers," he said.

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