FAA reauthorization bill markup stalled in Senate committee amid pilot training

Strengthening Airline Operations and Consumer Protections
UNITED STATES – FEBRUARY 9: Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, attend the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing titled “Strengthening Airline Operations and Consumer Protections” in Russell Building on Thursday, February 9, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images) Tom Williams/AP

FAA reauthorization bill markup stalled in Senate committee amid pilot training

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A Senate panel indefinitely delayed the markup of its Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill on Thursday amid an ongoing dispute regarding a pilot training amendment.

The amendment, introduced by Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) late Wednesday evening, came two days after Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and ranking member Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced their $107 billion bill. Cantwell and Cruz say the 461-page bill will improve runway safety, track high-altitude balloons, prevent airlines from charging families to sit together, and prepare the nation’s airspace for the future of air travel.

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The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released its version of an FAA reauthorization bill on Friday. Cantwell told reporters after postponing the scheduled markup on Thursday that there was “a lot of concern” about the House package’s pilot training language. It is not clear if that is what sparked Thune and Sinema’s decision to draft their Wednesday amendment.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has yet to reschedule the markup, and senators who serve on the panel have been unable to provide a timeline for the next steps.

“I think the chairwoman is doing everything she can to address all the thorny issues,” Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), who sits on the committee, told the Washington Examiner on Thursday morning.

Another battle is brewing over an amendment that would increase the number of long-distance flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, although it was unrelated to the delay of the markup.

Cantwell and Cruz made a deal to introduce an amendment to the FAA reauthorization that would give the airport four more slots beyond the airport’s perimeter rule, which currently limits the number of long-haul flights that travel more than 1,250 miles from Washington, D.C. Both Reagan and Dulles International Airport are owned by the federal government, which means Congress can decide how they operate.

Cantwell and Cruz’s amendment still needs a vote in the Commerce Committee before it can be added to the legislation, but the deal was far less ambitious than other proposals offered as bills in the House and the Senate that would have offered airlines 28 more long-distance flights out of DCA daily, a proposal backed by the Capital Access Alliance, a group that includes Delta Airlines.

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), a sponsor of the Senate version and a member of the committee, said a lot of the details are still in flux.

“What we want to do is improve the experience overall for consumers. It’s a great opportunity,” Warnock said on Thursday after a Senate vote. “I want to create some additional slots, and we will see what comes out of those things.”

Senators in favor of extending the perimeter, like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), is making the case that airlines that are opposed to the expansion are doing so to protect their own business interests. United Airlines has a major hub at Dulles, and American Airlines has a hub at Reagan National.

The proposal to add long-distance flights continues to draw sharp opposition from some of the airlines and members from Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. The chief executives of American, Alaska, and United Airlines, who have been fiercely lobbying against the measure, released a joint statement Wednesday to express their concerns.

“Adding flights at DCA will dramatically increase passenger delays and erode the operational integrity of the airport,” they wrote.

The airlines and local lawmakers continue to argue that the main runway at DCA is the busiest in the nation and does not have the capacity to handle more flights, pointing to a recent FAA memo that found “20 more daily roundtrip operations would increase delays by 25.9% and an increase of 25 daily roundtrip operations would increase delays by 33.2% at DCA.”

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Tim Kaine (D-VA) continue to sound the alarm, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post Wednesday, voicing their concerns about how adding more routes could disrupt the balance in place with other airports in the region.

Kaine admitted Thursday that the four slots being proposed in an amendment are much better than the alternative, but he still remains opposed to making any changes.

“I mean, it’s better in the abstract, but the FAA has said Reagan National is too congested now. And that adding slots is only going to make it worse,” Kaine said after a Senate vote on Thursday. “You’re going to make the traveling experience a whole lot worse for a lot of people.”

Extending the flight perimeter has been done in the past. In 1981, Congress extended the flight perimeter to 1,000 miles from the original 650 miles. In 1986, it was extended to the current 1,250 miles. Lawmakers have also made exemptions for a small number of flights to cities such as Austin, Texas, Seattle, Denver, and Phoenix. Cardin said they’ve already made enough exemptions and couldn’t support adding any more.

“We went through this once before we made the accommodations then; this is in the best interest of all three of the airports in the region. There’s the capacity issue at DCA, so no against any changes,” Cardin said.

All four senators have vowed to fight the expansion with every procedural tool available. In the Senate, where unanimous consent is required to move anything quickly, these lawmakers could derail the process ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline for the must-pass legislation.

“The addition of the amendment would jeopardize the entire reauthorization,” Kaine said.

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The Coalition to Protect America’s Regional Airports, which includes members like United Airlines, which has a hub at Dulles, also mentioned the amendment could put the overall bill at risk

“As we have seen today, any changes to the slot and perimeter rules threaten to derail timely passage of a much-needed FAA Reauthorization bill, and are not in the interests of passengers nor America’s regional airports,” the group said in a statement on Thursday.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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