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Senate passes bill improving air safety, service for travelers day before deadline

Measure will boost number of air traffic controllers, improve safety standards, make refunds easier

By MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press
Published: May 9, 2024, 5:18pm

WASHINGTON — The Senate has passed a $105 billion bill designed to improve air safety and customer service for air travelers, a day before the law governing the Federal Aviation Administration expires.

The bipartisan bill, which comes after a series of close calls between planes at the nation’s airports, would boost the number of air traffic controllers, improve safety standards and make it easier for customers to get refunds after flights are delayed or canceled.

It passed the Senate 88-4. The legislation now goes to the House, which is out of session until next week. The Senate is considering a one-week extension that would give the House time to pass the bill while ensuring the FAA isn’t forced to furlough around 3,600 FAA employees.

The bill stalled for several days this week after senators from Virginia and Maryland objected to a provision that would allow an additional 10 flights a day to and from the heavily trafficked Reagan Washington National Airport. Other senators have tried to add unrelated provisions, as well, seeing it as a prime chance to enact their legislative priorities.

But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called a vote Thursday evening after it became clear that senators would not be able to agree on amendments to the bill before it expires. After the bill passed, leaders in both parties were still working out how to pass an extension and ensure the law does not expire on Friday. The House passed a one-week extension earlier this week.

The FAA has been under scrutiny since it approved Boeing jets that were involved in two deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019. The Senate legislation would govern FAA operations for the next five years and put several new safety standards in place.

The bill would increase the number of air traffic controllers and require the FAA to use new technology designed to prevent collisions between planes on runways. It would require new airline planes to have cockpit voice recorders capable of saving 25 hours of audio, up from the current two hours, to help investigators.

It would also try to improve customer service for flyers by requiring airlines to pay a refund to customers for flight delays — three hours for a domestic flight and six for an international one. Lawmakers tweaked the bill this week to make it even easier for customers to receive refunds, revising language that would have put most of the onus on the customer to request them. The change put the Senate bill more in line with new regulations issued by President Joe Biden’s administration last week.

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In addition, the bill would prohibit airlines from charging extra for families to sit together and triple the maximum fines for airlines that violate consumer laws. And it would require the Transportation Department to create a “dashboard” so consumers can compare seat sizes on different airlines.

The FAA says that if the law expires on Friday, the 3,600 employees would be furloughed without a guarantee of back pay starting at midnight. The agency would also be unable to collect daily airport fees that help pay for operations, and ongoing airport improvements would come to a halt.

No one in “safety critical” positions — like air traffic controllers — would be affected if the deadline is missed, the FAA says, and the safety of the flying public would not be at risk.

Still, failure to pass the popular bipartisan bill by May 10 would be the latest setback after months of delays on the measure, and another example of Congress struggling to pass major legislation, even when it has broad support.

Opening the Senate on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer urged senators to come to an agreement soon. “Absolutely nobody should want us to slip past the deadline because that would needlessly increase risks for so many travelers and so many federal workers,” he said.

Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, had pushed for a vote on their amendment to block the additional long-haul flights at Virginia’s Reagan National. They say the airport is restricted in size and too busy already, pointing to a close call there between two planes earlier in April that they said is a “flashing red warning light.”

Several Western lawmakers have argued for more flights at the airport, saying it is unfair to consumers that there is a restriction on long-haul flights. The provision’s chief proponent is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, who has argued that San Antonio should have a direct flight from the airport. Cruz blocked a vote on Kaine and Warner’s amendment when Schumer tried to bring it up shortly before final passage.

Airlines are also split on the idea of additional flights at Reagan National. Delta Airlines has argued for more flights, while United Airlines, with a major operation at farther-out Dulles Airport, has lobbied against the increase.

The House last year passed its own version of the FAA legislation without additional Reagan National flights after intense, last-minute lobbying from the Virginia delegation — a bipartisan vote on an amendment to the FAA bill that saw members aligning not by party but geographic location. Lawmakers use the airport frequently as it’s the closest Washington airport to the Capitol, and Congress has long tried to have a say in which routes have service there.

“Some of our colleagues were too afraid to let the experts make the call,” Kaine and Warner said in a statement Thursday evening. “They didn’t want to show the American people that they care more about a few lawmakers’ desire for direct flights than they care about the safety and convenience of the traveling public. That is shameful and an embarrassment.”

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