Legislation that would increase airport security, require airlines to refund baggage fees when luggage is delayed and speed the regulation of drones won approval in the Senate on Tuesday.
The bipartisan bill setting policy and funding for the Federal Aviation Administration is the second major transportation bill approved by the Senate within five months, coming after a six-year surface-transportation bill that passed both houses in November.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) called the bill “one of the most passenger-friendly FAA reauthorization bills we’ve seen, literally, in a generation.”
“This bill is the most pro-passenger, pro-security FAA reauthorization in recent history,” Thune said. “Travelers are frustrated, and this bill contains common-sense reforms.”
But the Senate resisted the wishes of members who wanted to restrict airlines from further shrinking the seat size and space between rows on commercial airlines. The bill moves on to the House, which voted in committee last month to defeat the seat-size proposal.
A House version of the bill, approved in committee but yet to get attention on the House floor, would radically restructure the FAA by spinning off 14,000 air-traffic controllers and about 24,000 other FAA employees into a federally chartered, private nonprofit corporation.
House leaders are faced with a decision over whether to proceed with that controversial provision or amend the bill on the House floor to bring it closer to the Senate measure.
The relatively short duration of the Senate bill — it would expire after about 18 months, at the end of fiscal 2017 — will give the Republicans who support shifting the FAA employees another opportunity to press for it in the near term.
“We’ve given them a good bipartisan blueprint to follow and one that they ought to pass easily,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee. “If they don’t, by adding controversial or partisan measures, such as privatizing our air traffic control system, something the U.S. Department of Defense is unalterably opposed to, if that path is taken in the House, it’s going to be a big loss for consumers.”
The $7.1 billion Senate bill would also require airlines to state more clearly the fees they charge for things such as prime seat selection, checked baggage, changes and cancellations so passengers are better able to see the bottom line when they shop for the best ticket price.
Airlines would be required to refund baggage fees if the bags arrive more than six hours after a domestic flight has landed or more than 12 hours after an international flight.
Airlines also would be required to tell parents at the time they buy tickets whether it is feasible for them to sit with their child.
In reaction to last month’s terrorist bombings at the Brussels airport, the Senate bill increases the vetting of airport workers, expands the number of Transportation Security Administration viper teams that sweep through airports unannounced to stop and search suspicious people, and doubles the number of the TSA’s bomb-sniffing dogs.
The bill also would require the FAA to take measures to prevent hackers from tapping into jetliner control systems through entertainment devices brought aboard by passengers.
In addition, it would require that people who buy drones take an online test on their knowledge of restrictions and proper handling of their aircraft. Success with the test would produce a printed verification that the pilot could carry. The FAA already requires registration of drones.
“Drone safety is an increasingly important issue in our economy,” said Thune, who shepherded the bill through committee with Nelson’s help.
Thune said the key was having “the right rules of the air” in place, and he cited an incident Sunday when a drone apparently collided with a British Airways flight on final approach to London’s Heathrow Airport.
The bill also mandates that the FAA comply with an international ban on the shipment of lithium-ion batteries aboard airplanes, a practice blamed for bringing down two jetliners when the batteries burst into flames. The FAA already has endorsed a global ban by the International Civil Aviation Organization on their shipment.