Congress is working to overhaul air travel at a time of growing dysfunction and disruption in the system, as lawmakers haggle over a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration for the next half-decade and make a number of changes that could affect passengers.
The House is poised Thursday to pass its version of the legislation, which would assess refunds and reimbursement obligations of airlines to passengers, improve protections for passengers with disabilities, address an air traffic controller shortage, strengthen aviation security, unlock funding to modernize airport infrastructure. , invest in upgrades to the agency’s technology and more.
A number of sticking points threatened to stall a final deal, including disputes over proposed changes to pilot training rules and an increase to the pilot retirement age. Republicans and the airline industry largely oppose new industry regulations aimed at strengthening consumer protections. And Washington officials said they would block the measure if it allowed more long-haul flights in and out of Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, just outside the capital.
But the House cleared some of the main potential hurdles Wednesday night. It narrowly rejected, 229 to 205, a bipartisan proposal add seven new round-trip flights to Reagan National Airport, potentially smoothing the way to final passage.
The House approved a bipartisan amendment that would maintain the current standards for pilot training, blocking a proposed change that was supported by representative Sam Graves, the Missouri Republican who heads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but which faced stiff opposition in the Senate.
The battles threatened to derail Congress’s chance to try to improve air travel for consumers amid thousands of recent flight delays or cancellations, an increase in near-miss collisions on runways, a strained air traffic controller workforce and an increase in trips exiting the runways. corona virus pandemic. And disruptions are only expected to get worse as climate change leads to more extreme weather that will cause flight disruptions.
The Senate Commerce Committee plans to consider its version of the bill this month, and the two sides must then reconcile their competing proposals before the end of September, when the current authorization expires. The Senate bill includes a number of consumer protections that airlines have denounced as overly burdensome and said would make air travel more expensive and less accessible.
Those measures are also likely to face resistance from the Republican House. Republicans argued that airline deregulation strengthened competition between carriers and improved the customer experience, and that new regulations would stifle competition.
“This legislation addresses many of the concerns we hear from the flying public every day,” Representative Garret Graves, Republican of Louisiana and chairman of the Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee, said Wednesday. Graves.
But he expressed concern in an interview that the Senate’s proposed consumer protections would be too broad and vague. “We have to make sure the solutions are put in the right places, meaning you can’t blame the airlines for air traffic control, you can’t blame TSA for airlines,” he said, referring to the Transportation Security Administration. Administration.
Democrats have accused the airline industry of resisting needed regulations.
“To be very blunt, the biggest obstacle to improving service is industry lobbying,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who along with Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts led a group of Democratic senators in introducing a “passenger bill of rights” bill. this year.
Among other measures, their legislation would prevent airlines from paying “unreasonable or disproportionate” fees for services such as checked bags and seat selection, and mandates that airlines compensate passengers rejected for an oversold flight and refund baggage in case of lost luggage.
The industry, Mr. Blumenthal said, “has dollars and lawyers and lobbyists that enable it to block effective reform, including a bill of rights for passengers.”
Marli Collier, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which represents major airlines, said in a statement that “it is in the interest of all U.S. airlines to provide a positive flight experience for all passengers.” She said the group’s members “observe” and “often exceed” Department of Transportation regulations protecting consumers.
The FAA bill has also become a magnet for dozens of narrower disputes, including regional battles that have defied the usual political alliances in Congress. One was the a battle to defend the decades-old federal rule dictating the number of long-haul round-trip flights from Reagan National Airport, which sits just across the Potomac from the Capitol and is the airport of choice for many members of Congress.
Dozens of lawmakers, including some who could benefit from a more convenient commute to Washington if the so-called slot perimeter rule is changed, have pushed to increase the number of long-haul flights from the airport, arguing the change would increase competition. and lower prices. Washington lawmakers whose constituents would be most affected by the change counter that the airport is already overcapacity.
The rule has “limited access and increased costs” for people who want to visit Washington, said Representative Burgess Owens, the Utah Republican who proposed the provision to add flights, on Wednesday.
But Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, warned that any change to the rule would be “guaranteed to delay” the bill.
Congress is also in conflict increasing the mandatory retirement age of a pilot from 65 to 67, a change sought by Representative Troy Nehls, Republican of Texas, whose brother is an airline pilot about to turn 65, and championed by Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The offices of Mr. Nehls and Mr. McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.
Proponents argue the increase would help stem a tide of retirements draining an already-stretched pilot workforce. Opponents in both parties who include unions and the Biden administrationargues that the change would not strengthen the workforce, but would affect safety, cause legal problems and present logistical challenges because pilots older than 65 are barred from flying internationally.
The Senate bill has also been stymied for weeks by changes by Senators John Thune, R-South Dakota, and Kyrsten Sinema, R-Ariz., to a rule dictating the amount and type of flight time pilots must accrue to fly commercially.
The House vote Wednesday to maintain the current standards rejected a provision in the bill that would have allowed certain pilots to count more hours of simulated flight toward the requirements.
“Our job as elected leaders is to protect public safety and help ensure that no other family suffers the heartbreak of losing a loved one to an avoidable air tragedy,” said Representative Nick Langworthy, the New York Republican who proposed the amendment. House floor on Wednesday. The pilot training rule was instituted after a plane crashed near Buffalo in 2009, killing everyone on board.
Sam Graves, the Transportation Committee chairman, who is himself a commercially certified pilot, argued that simulators offer would-be pilots more opportunities to train in scenarios they could not easily replicate in real life.
Senator Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Democrat and the chairman of the aviation subcommittee, has insisted on keeping the training standards and introduced a bill on Tuesday to strengthen and protect the rule.
“This is my red line. We cannot reduce flight hours at the risk of public safety,” Ms. Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot, told reporters. “I will not be complicit in efforts to reduce the actual flight time requirements that protect the flying public in the midst of an aviation security crisis. And I will not budge on that.”