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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: FAA reauthorization win for travelers, Congress

The Columbian
Published: May 23, 2024, 6:03am

Despite well-documented troubles at Boeing, a series of harrowing incidents and growing passenger frustration, commercial air travel in the United States remains remarkably safe. Congress’ reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration is designed to keep it that way.

The most recent commercial airline crash in the United States was in February 2009 near Buffalo, N.Y. , when 50 people were killed. Since then, nearly 10 billion passengers have safely arrived at their destination at the conclusion of a domestic flight.

And still, there is room for improvement. A Jan. 5 incident in which a door plug fell off a plane in mid-flight, combined with other non-injury incidents, has brought congressional scrutiny and public awareness to lax safety measures in Boeing’s assembly process. And the past year has seen an inordinate number of canceled or rescheduled flights, leading to disgruntled customers.

All of that has brought new attention to the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, which Congress approved in recent weeks. Rather than providing temporary authorization, which has been lawmakers’ preferred tactic on a variety of issues, the latest reauthorization is good for five years.

“This landmark law is about reinforcing and reinvigorating the nation’s aviation system,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. and chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “Following flight disruptions, runway close calls and consumer frustrations, this law is set to deliver the safest, most reliable aviation system in the world.”

The new bill enhances the rights of passengers to receive refunds when a flight is delayed or canceled; increases inspections at manufacturing sites; and aims to boost the number of air traffic controllers.

The increase in air traffic controllers represents the kind of behind-the-scenes measure that often is overlooked. It is one of those things that does not get noticed until something goes wrong.

According to guidelines developed by the FAA, the United States should have approximately 14,600 air traffic controllers; instead, there are about 11,500 currently employed. This not only can undermine safety, but it also is a frequent cause of delays to scheduled flights. Strong hiring and training efforts in the past year were offset by attrition in the workforce, meaning the number of controllers increased by six.

The new law calls for the FAA to study the issue and enhance training facilities.

Meanwhile, the legislation also requires airlines to issue cash refunds for flight cancellations or significant delays, codifying rules recently announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Airlines must automatically issue refunds without passengers having to explicitly request them or jump through hoops,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg explained.

Other measures also target customer relations, such as requiring airlines to make agents available by phone or live chat, rather than directing customers to bots. And various safety provisions are included, such as greater investment in runway technology to prevent close calls.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about the legislation is that it passed with strong bipartisan support (the vote was 88-4 in the Senate) and arrived before the previous authorization expired. As President Joe Biden said upon signing the bill, the reauthorization “is a big win for travelers, the aviation workforce, and our economy.”