Senate Passes Bill to Reauthorize FAA and Improve Air Travel

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The Senate on Thursday passed legislation to reauthorize federal aviation programs for the next five years and put in place new safety measures and consumer protections for passengers, at a moment of intense uncertainty and disruption in the air travel system.

The bill, which still must win final approval in the House before becoming law, would provide more than $105 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration and another $738 million to the National Transportation Safety Board for airport modernization, technology programs and safety. It would also bolster the hiring and training of air traffic controllers, codify airlines’ refund obligations to passengers, ensure fee-free family seating and strengthen protections for passengers with disabilities.

“Aviation safety has been front of mind for millions of Americans recently, and this F.A.A. bill is the best thing Congress can do to give Americans the peace of mind they deserve,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said on the Senate floor on Thursday evening.

It passed in an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 88 to 4, just one day before the current law is scheduled to lapse, and it was not clear whether senators could reach agreement to briefly extend it until next week to allow time for the House to consider the bill.

The legislation is a bipartisan compromise negotiated over months by the Senate and House committees with jurisdiction over the F.A.A., after Congress authorized several short-term extensions of the agency when lawmakers failed to meet earlier deadlines. The House passed its version of the bill almost a year ago in a lopsided vote of 351 to 69.

As one of the few remaining bills considered a must-pass item this year, the F.A.A. package, which prompted several regional disputes, became a magnet for dozens of amendments and policy riders that threatened to delay it in the Senate.

With the legislation threatening to stall, the House on Wednesday approved a one-week extension for the F.A.A. before leaving Washington for the weekend. The Senate was still working on Thursday to pass that stopgap measure to allow time for the House to take up and clear the longer-term package next week, a step that would send it to President Biden.

But lingering disputes threatened to scuttle that effort, meaning the F.A.A. law could briefly lapse. Air travel would not stop during a lapse, but the F.A.A. would have to freeze certain agency activities such as air traffic controller training and infrastructure upgrades.

It was unclear for much of Thursday whether the Senate would be able to push through the legislation, as senators demanded votes on amendments or threatened to block speedy passage. No amendments were ultimately brought to a vote.

The most intense regional fight was over a provision in the bill that would add five round-trip long-haul flights out of Ronald Reagan National Airport outside Washington. Proponents, which include Delta Air Lines, have said they want to expand access to the nation’s capital and increase competition.

The proposal incensed lawmakers representing the area, who argued that the airport maintains the busiest runway in the country and cannot support additional flights. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia and Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, all Democrats, filed an amendment to strike the new flights.

Mr. Kaine and Mr. Warner threatened to hold the bill up if they did not receive a vote. But Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, blocked an effort to bring up a compromise amendment that would have given the transportation secretary the final say on new flights after considering any effects they would have on delays and passenger safety.

“The Senate abdicated its responsibility to protect the safety of the 25 million people who fly through D.C.A. every year,” Mr. Kaine and Mr. Warner said in a statement. “Some of our colleagues were too afraid to let the experts make the call. 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.”

The senators from Virginia and Maryland were the only votes against the bill.

Another group of senators failed to secure a vote on a proposal to halt the Transportation Security Administration’s expansion of facial recognition technology at airports and restrict it where it is in use.

Senators had also proposed adding a number of unrelated bills, including one that would compensate people harmed by exposure to the nation’s nuclear weapons program, legislation to fully fund the replacement of the collapsed Francis Key Scott Bridge in Baltimore, a credit card competition measure and a bill to protect minors online. None of them made it into the final product.



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