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FAA Reauthorization Bill Progresses in Congress

The latest draft features passenger protections and updated ATC rest rules.

A Southwest aircraft taxis in Austin (Photo: Shutterstock)

Committees in the United States Congress have finalized their drafts for the latest version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill. The bills will be put up for full votes in each chamber before being sent to President Joe Biden. The bill has been in the works since December, and this latest version comes as compromises were made between the bills independently approved by the House and Senate earlier this month.

The bill, if signed, would provide funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as well as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), through 2028. The FAA would receive over $100 billion over four years, while the NTSB will receive almost $750 million. The current FAA authorization is set to expire on May 10 after an extension.

As with the previous reauthorization bill in 2018, which focused greatly on new rules for air taxis and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), this bill will have a number of defining characteristics that will move aviation in the United States in a new direction.

Improvements for Passenger Rights

One of the biggest features is a clause intended to bolster passengers’ rights if a flight is delayed or canceled, a move in line with the Biden administration’s efforts to protect consumers. The pending bill will codify recent rules announced by the Department of Transportation that make it easier for passengers to request automatic refunds or rebookings if their flights are significantly delayed or canceled; travel credits issued in lieu of cash refunds would need to last at least five years.

Airlines would also be required to introduce fee-free family seating on commercial flights within 180 days of the reauthorization act’s approval.

Boarding an Advanced Air aircraft in California. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Further, the bill allows for extra training to assist passengers traveling with wheelchairs and scooters. Protections for passengers with disabilities have been especially important in the past year, and Congress introduced a bill in the fall to allow passengers with disabilities extra protections when flying.

Though the reauthorization bill does not call for a minimum seat size on airplanes, it will encourage the FAA to study seat sizes and airplane evacuation standards. The 2018 reauthorization bill had a similar requirement, but passenger rights groups at the time said that the studies conducted included only able-bodied adults with no luggage, kids, or passengers with disabilities.

Updated Cockpit Voice Recorder Rules

Also included in the bill are a number of items that would boost safety standards and reporting. One such item would be an increase in the amount of time Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVRs) would need to be included on commercial aircraft, at the request of the FAA and the NTSB. This issue came to light after the CVR on Alaska 1282, the 737 MAX 9 whose door plug blew out in January, was overwritten because the recorders were not deactivated on time; thus, the pilots’ conversations during the event were overwritten and lost.

An Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 at Paine Field. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Zera)

Having a longer requirement would have prevented that scenario. CVRs often prove incredibly insightful not only for accident investigators but also for flight instructors, who often use case studies to show pilots what to do or not do in the event of an emergency. EASA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) already require the CVR to record and save at least 25 hours of audio before overwriting it.

“ICAO noted that extending the recording duration of CVRs was necessary to cover the longest flight duration, including pre- and postflight activities, delays, and the time required to secure the recordings,” the ICAO said.

Air Traffic Control Protections, Runway Safety

Equally important is the bill’s focus on ATC rest and pay requirements. The reauthorization bill would allow for raises for all air traffic controllers and would require them to get more rest between shifts. It would also change the requirements for when controllers can be changed from a daytime schedule to nighttime shifts, or vice versa. Furthermore, the bill allows for more controllers to be hired.

The need for these changes has been particularly clear since the post-pandemic travel rebound. Controllers across the country say that a number of high-profile mistakes, often lauded as near-disasters, occur because facilities are understaffed and controllers are underpaid. This has led controllers to be placed on long shifts, given mandatory overtime, and swapped between daytime shifts and nighttime shifts. Thus, controllers say they are exhausted, stressed, and underpaid.

The reauthorization bill’s changes to pay and scheduling aim to alleviate the burdens placed on controllers and avoid any more near-disasters. Of particular importance is the need to attract more people to apply to be controllers. The FAA only opens hiring windows a few times per year and for a few days at a time, and the agency says that these hiring windows are critical to ensuring adequate staffing.

An ABX Boeing 767 landing in Miami. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Related to this change is an effort to improve runway safety at major airports. Many of the errors in the last couple of years have been related to runway incursions, whether due to pilot or controller error. Though some major airports already have runway safety systems in air traffic control towers, these technologies can be expanded to other airports and enhanced at the facilities where they already exist.

“Recently there have been incidents that reemphasize why getting an FAA reauthorization done on time is critical,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Sam Graves last year, referencing runway incursions and close calls across the first few months of 2023. “Even following the safest decade in our history, our aviation system is clearly in need of urgent attention. Complacency and stagnation are equal threats to a safety culture.”

Ground Crew Protections and Flight Crew Updates

Another notable part of the bill protects airline workers, especially gate and check-in agents, from passenger attacks, which spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill would expand legal protections for the workers and invest in self-defense training for flight attendants sponsored by the Transportation Security Administration.

One of the biggest controversies surrounding this bill is whether Congress would allow the FAA to raise the retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67. Industry leaders say such a move would help address the pilot shortage induced by the pandemic. However, pilot unions say that not enough is known about how older pilots would perform and that the pilot shortage is no longer severe enough to warrant this change. They want more research into whether raising the retirement age would be safe.

A Frontier Airbus A320neo (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Equally absent from the bill is language allowing for single-pilot operations under part 121. Two pilots have been required in the airlines for decades, but early language in the bill would have allowed for it. However, attempts at single-pilot operations have brought outrage among pilots and safety advocates, who say that two pilots in the cockpit are critical for maintaining safe aircraft operation throughout flight. As with attempts to raise the retirement age, unions said attempts at single-pilot operations were only attempts by airlines to maximize profits with unnecessary risk by flying more with fewer crew members.

“The risks associated with reduced-crew and single-pilot operations are well documented. Most prominently, these risks stem from the increased workload for the remaining pilot, the elimination of a critical layer of monitoring and operating redundancy in the cockpit, and the inability of a single pilot to handle many emergency situations,” the Airline Pilots Association wrote in a document called ‘The Dangers of Single-Pilot Operations.’

John McDermott


  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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