Senate passes bill designed to improve air safety and service for travelers The Senate passed a bill designed to improve safety and customer service for air travelers, a day before the law governing the Federal Aviation Administration expires.

Senate passes FAA reauthorization bill, sending legislation to the House

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters following Democratic strategy session, at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. J. Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters following Democratic strategy session, at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

WASHINGTON — The Senate has passed a $105 billion bill designed to improve safety and customer service for air travelers, a day before the law governing the Federal Aviation Administration expires.

The bipartisan bill, which comes after a series of close calls between planes at the nation's airports, aims to boost the number of air traffic controllers amid a shortage, improve safety standards and make it easier for customers to get refunds after flights are delayed or canceled, among other measures.

After passing the legislation on a strong 88-4 vote, the Senate passed a one-week extension to ensure that the law doesn't expire before the House considers the bill next week. The FAA has said it would have had to furlough around 3,600 workers if the law expired at midnight Friday.

The bill stalled for several days this week after senators from Virginia and Maryland objected to a provision that would allow an additional 10 flights a day to and from the heavily trafficked Reagan Washington National Airport. Other senators tried to add unrelated provisions, as well, seeing it as a prime chance to enact their legislative priorities.

But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called a vote Thursday evening after it became clear that senators would not be able to agree on amendments to the bill before the law expired. The Senate then passed the one-week extension that the House had already passed, sending that to President Joe Biden's desk.

The FAA has been under scrutiny since it approved Boeing jets that were involved in two deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019. The Senate legislation would govern FAA operations for the next five years and put several new safety standards in place.

The bill "gives the FAA the stability it needs to fulfill its primary mission — advancing aviation safety — while also making travel more convenient and accessible," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

The legislation aims to increase the number of air traffic controllers, provides for more safety inspectors at manufacturing facilities and requires the FAA to use new technology designed to prevent collisions between planes on runways. It would require new airline planes to have cockpit voice recorders capable of saving 25 hours of audio, up from the current two hours, to help investigators after safety incidents.

It would try to improve customer service for flyers by requiring airlines to pay a refund to customers for flight delays — three hours for a domestic flight and six for an international one. Lawmakers tweaked the bill this week to make it even easier for customers to receive refunds, revising language that would have put most of the onus on the customers to request them. The change put the Senate bill more in line with new regulations issued by the Biden administration last week.

In addition, the bill would prohibit airlines from charging extra for families to sit together and triple the maximum fines for airlines that violate consumer laws. And it would require the Transportation Department to create a "dashboard" so consumers can compare seat sizes on different airlines.

The legislation would also improve access for passengers with disabilities, requiring airlines to accommodate seating requests for disability-related needs, setting new training standards for airline personnel who handle and store wheelchairs and awarding grants for airport accessibility upgrades.

Failure to pass the popular bipartisan bill by May 10 would have been the latest setback after months of delays on the measure, and the last-minute deal to pass it was the most recent example of Congress struggling to pass major legislation that had broad bipartisan support.

Schumer, who had urged lawmakers to drop their objections and come to agreement on the legislation, said after passage that "passing this FAA bill is the best thing Congress can do to give Americans the peace of mind they deserve."

Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, had pushed for a vote on their amendment to block the additional long-haul flights at Virginia's Reagan National. They say the airport is restricted in size and too busy already, pointing to a close call there between two planes earlier in April that they said is a "flashing red warning light."

Several Western lawmakers have argued for more flights at the airport, saying it is unfair to consumers that there is a restriction on long-haul flights. The provision's chief proponent is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, who is up for reelection this year and has argued that San Antonio should have a direct flight from the airport. Cruz blocked a vote on Kaine and Warner's amendment when Schumer tried to bring it up shortly before final passage.

Like lawmakers, airlines are also split on the idea of additional flights at Reagan National. Delta Airlines has argued for more flights, while United Airlines, with a major operation at farther-out Dulles Airport, has lobbied against the increase.

The House last year passed its own version of the FAA legislation without additional Reagan National flights after intense, last-minute lobbying from the Virginia delegation — a bipartisan vote on an amendment to the FAA bill that saw members aligning not by party but geographic location. Lawmakers use the airport frequently because it is the closest Washington airport to the Capitol, and Congress has long tried to have a say in which routes have service there.

"Some of our colleagues were too afraid to let the experts make the call," Kaine and Warner said in a joint statement Thursday evening, after Cruz blocked a vote on their amendment. "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."

Kaine, Warner and Maryland's two senators, Democrats Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, were the only four senators to vote against final passage.