The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization legislation took a major step forward on April 19th as the Senate overwhelmingly passed its bill 95-3. Although it is only an 18 month bill (the measure authorizes FAA programs until Sept. 30, 2017), the bill includes many reforms that impact airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) manufacturers and operators, and airline passengers.

The bill aims to enhance airport security, and streamline the process for certifying new safety systems for aircraft. In addition, it seeks to increase consumer protections for passengers and strengthen cyber-security safeguards for both airborne and ground systems. The bill also includes changes that would impact UAS integration. While some of the provisions will move integration forward, others are troubling to the industry. Much work remains to pass meaningful legislation to support these different stakeholders.

Highlights of the legislation include:

  • UAS Integration – In addition to addressing safety and privacy issues surrounding UAS integration, the Senate bill also clarifies the federal and local roles in regulating UAS. It seeks to enhance UAS integration by authorizing expanded night and beyond line of sight operations, and provides additional measures to keep UAS away from airports and critical infrastructure. Moreover, the Senate bill establishes an aggressive timetable to permit package deliveries by unmanned aircraft within two years. One controversial provision would direct the federal government to convene industry stakeholders to develop consensus standards for safety features to be built into UAS. The bill also builds on recent FAA progress and requires the development of operating rules specific to “micro” UAS (weighing 4.4 lbs. or less).
  • Aircraft Certification Reforms – The Senate bill seeks to improve the FAA’s processes for certifying aircraft designs and modifications, including through the use of expanded delegated authorities. The bill also permits the FAA to accept reimbursement for employee travel expenses for travel related to the validation by a foreign authority of an FAA certification.
  • Airline Safety – In an effort to enhance airline safety, the Senate bill includes new requirements on the bulk transfer of lithium batteries, and requires commercial aircraft manufacturers to install secondary cockpit security barriers that can be deployed when pilots temporarily step away from the controls. The Senate bill also mandates that certain measures be taken to ensure the cyber-security of commercial aircraft and air traffic control systems.
  • Consumer Protection and Aviation Access – Similar to the House bill, the Senate bill includes new consumer protections for passengers, maintains access for rural communities through the Essential Air Service Program, and ensures that passengers receive a refund for fees when checked bags are delayed or missing, or for money paid for specific seat assignments that end up being unavailable. It also requires airlines to state more clearly the fees they charge for things such as prime seat selection, checked baggage, ticket changes and cancellations, so passengers are better able to see the total price when they shop for airline tickets. The Senate bill requires airlines to tell parents at the time they buy tickets whether it is possible for them to sit with their child.
  • General Aviation Safety and Protections – The Senate bill also addresses concerns of the general aviation community. Among other changes, it includes a number of provisions from the Pilot’s Bill of Rights legislation, and reforms the Third Class Medical Certificate process for non-commercial pilots.
  • Infrastructure Investment – The Senate bill increases authorized funding for the Airport Improvement Program, which pays for airport infrastructure like runways, by US$400 million to an annual level of US$3.75 billion, and it seeks to streamline the application process for Passenger Facility Charges (PFC), though it does not include an increase in the PFC as requested by the airports.

The bill now moves back to the House, where a six-year reauthorization of the FAA was advanced out of committee on February 11th, but has since stalled largely due to a contentious proposal to separate the nation's air traffic control system from the FAA. House leaders must decide whether to proceed with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s proposal or amend the bill on the House floor to bring it closer in-line with the Senate measure.