An eleventh-hour agreement to vote on a bipartisan FAA Reauthorization bill could see new protections for passengers, increased rest periods for crew members and harsher penalties for disruptive flyers, but amendments to privatize the air traffic control systems and rules limiting airlines’ ability to charge extra fees for previously included services were stripped from the final bill.
After years of political wrangling, it appears that lawmakers have reached a compromise to pass the long-awaited Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act. The bipartisan agreement was reached in the early morning hours on Saturday as part of a larger agreement to fund hurricane relief for the Carolinas as well as reauthorizing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for three years.
The FAA has been operating under a series of last-minute extensions ever since the previous long-term FAA reauthorization expired during the Obama administration. If passed, the current bill will authorize the FAA mission through 2023. The proposed legislation has earned the endorsement of Airlines for America (A4A), the largest airline industry trade organization in the world.
“We applaud the bipartisan, bicameral efforts in Congress, led in the House by Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and in the Senate by Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) and their staffs, for reaching agreement on the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2018,” A4A President Nicholas E. Calio said in a statement endorsing the bill. “We highly encourage both the House and the Senate to move swiftly to vote—and pass—this important legislation. The long-term reauthorization is essential for the FAA to advance projects and implement programs that advance our country’s status as the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.”
In the past, A4A heavily lobbied lawmakers to use the reauthorization bill to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system. Amendments calling for the privatization of federal ATC duties were not included in the compromise agreement, but the FAA was given funding and a mandate to further study the feasibility of a move to a private ATC system.
A4A was able to convince lawmakers to abandon efforts to regulate how and when airlines charge ancillary fees to passengers. An effort to restrict airlines from charging exorbitant change fees, saw A4A member American Airlines threaten to stop selling low fare non-refundable tickets altogether if those rules were included in the final bill.
There were, however, a few new consumer protections that survived negotiations to be included in the final draft of the legislation. The proposed bill will require the the FAA to set minimum requirements for seat size and legroom on commercial flights. Passengers who have already boarded an aircraft would no longer be permitted to be bumped from their seat because the flight had been oversold. A new “Aviation Consumer Advocate” would be established to help passengers resolve issues with the airlines. Carriers would also be required to “promptly” refund fees for services such as seat selection or priority boarding should that service not be provided for whatever reason.
Language requiring airlines to seat families with small children close together was not included in the final bill, but there are plenty of new protections for parents and soon-to-be parents. In most cases, airlines would be specifically prevented from charging a fee to gate check a stroller. Carriers would be required to offer pre-boarding to pregnant passengers and airports would be required to offer “sanitary, private rooms for nursing mothers.”
Labor leaders earned a number of victories in the compromise legislation as well. If passed, crew members will benefit from greater mandated rest periods between flights. Penalties for passengers who disrupt flights will increase substantially. The proposed legislation also calls for stricter enforcement to prevent sexual assault and harassment of both employees and passengers.
The use of e-cigarettes will soon be specifically banned from aircraft cabins by law. Perhaps most importantly of all, the bill, which is considered likely to be passed by both chambers and signed by the President, prohibits the use of cell phones for calls during flight.