Federal aviation bill passed by U.S. House, with boost for smaller airports
An American Airlines plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport on Oct. 1, 2020 in Los Angeles. Photo by Mario Tama | Getty Images
The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration for five years, including a big increase in subsidies for airlines providing flights to smaller markets.
The chamber voted 351-67 to approve the bill, which would authorize $104 billion for the agency through 2028, increase authorized spending levels for rural aviation programs and add some protections for the flying public amid ongoing complaints over cancellations and delays.
“This bill ensures robust investment in infrastructure for airports of all sizes, including the thousands of smaller and general aviation airports that make up the bulk of our aviation system,” U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, said.
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The bipartisan support on the floor came after lawmakers kept the measure clear of the controversial social issues a handful of House Republicans attached to the defense authorization bill last week.
For example, on the FAA bill the chamber rejected, 181-254, an amendment from Illinois Republican Mary Miller to restrict funding for diversity, equity and inclusion training at the agency. In last week’s defense authorization bill, the House adopted two amendments targeting such programs in the Defense Department.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rick Larsen of Washington, praised the process in a Thursday floor speech.
“We are on the verge of passing a comprehensive, bipartisan, negotiated-in-good faith, important, policy-based bill, I presume in a bipartisan manner, which may not make the news because it wasn’t exciting enough,” Larsen said minutes before the vote. “We have prided ourself on being a boring committee, on being a workhorse committee.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the bill on a 63-0 vote last month.
Even after passage, Larsen said he and Graves will have to coordinate with the Senate and White House to see the bill enacted into law. Leaders of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee introduced a companion bill last month, but have not scheduled a committee vote on the measure.
Current FAA authorization expires Sept. 30 and the legislation is considered one of this year’s must-do bills for Congress.
Rural air service, consumer aid
Under Graves, a licensed pilot and longtime champion of general aviation, the bill includes provisions meant to boost air service in rural America.
The measure includes a major increase for the Essential Air Service, a program to subsidize flights to small, rural airports that’s often been targeted for cutbacks or elimination. It would authorize an average of $292 million per year for the program. The current law, enacted in 2018, authorized about $162 million per year on average.
Essential Air Service subsidizes airlines with routes to and from 110 airports in the contiguous 48 states as of 2021, with dozens more in Alaska and Hawaii. Subsidies of more than $200 per passenger are reserved for airports beyond 210 miles from the nearest mid- or large-hub airport.
The bill also includes an entire title, or section, on general aviation, the non-commercial, non-military flight operations that include flights for agricultural, medical and business travel purposes. It’s the first such title in an FAA authorization bill, according to Graves.
Larsen also praised the measure’s consumer protections sections on the House floor Wednesday.
“Recent flight cancellations and delays have shaken the confidence of passengers in the U.S. aviation system,” Larsen said. “To get us back on the right course, the reauthorization requires airlines to create resiliency plans to address mass flight disruptions.”
The bill would require airlines to publish on their websites guidelines on compensation related to flight delays, diversions, cancellations and mishandled luggage.
It would also create a passenger experience advisory committee, to report to the Transportation secretary and FAA administrator.
Fight over D.C. flights
The bill would not alter the routes allowed to serve Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, which sits in Virginia just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital. Federal law prohibits routes to destinations more than 1,250 miles from the airport, with limited exceptions to cities including Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland, Oregon and Seattle.
The provision is meant to protect Dulles International Airport, which is farther out in Northern Virginia from the city center, and proposals for added air traffic out of National Airport proved highly contentious.
Utah Republican Burgess Owens proposed an amendment to allow seven new round-trip flights to National. The measure was defeated, 205-229.
Most Democrats voted against the amendment and most Republicans supported it, though dozens from both sides crossed party lines.
Several members of both parties from major metropolitan areas in Texas and California voted to add flights.
Republican Chip Roy and Democrats Joaquin Castro and Henry Cuellar all spoke on the floor to advocate for a direct flight from their San Antonio-area districts.
“My city of San Antonio is known as Military City, USA,” Castro said. “It’s home to tens of thousands of soldiers, airmen, intelligence professionals, and cybersecurity experts who need direct access to Washington, D.C.”
So, too, did most members from Delta Air Lines’ home state of Georgia. Delta supports adding flights to National Airport, also known by its international airport code, DCA. Democrat Lucy McBath was the only member from Georgia to vote against the measure.
“The only reason airlines are opposing this is that they want to limit competition,” U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, said.
Members from Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and the District of Columbia opposed the measure.
“No one asked our regional delegation about this, and we are united against adding more air traffic at DCA,” Virginia Democrat Don Beyer said. The airport is already overcrowded, with 20% of flights late, he added.
The area’s U.S. Senate delegation is also opposed to adding long-distance flights. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat from West Virginia, said this week he opposed the idea, fearing airlines may opt to cut short regional flights in favor of longer ones.
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