Congress is working to overhaul air travel at a time of growing dysfunction and disruption in the system, as lawmakers haggle over a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration for the next half-decade and make a number of changes that could affect passengers.
The House is set on Thursday to pass its version of the legislation, which would evaluate airlines’ refunds and reimbursement obligations to passengers, enhance protections for passengers with disabilities, address an air traffic controller shortage, bolster aviation safety, unlock funding to modernize airport infrastructure, invest in upgrades to the agency’s technology and more.
A number of sticking points had threatened to hold up a final agreement, including disputes over proposed changes to a pilot training rule and an increase to the pilot retirement age. Republicans and the airline industry largely oppose new regulations of the industry intended to strengthen consumer protections. And Washington-area representatives have said they would block the measure if it allowed for more long-distance flights in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, just outside the capital.
But the House dispensed with some of the major potential obstacles on Wednesday night. It narrowly rejected, 229 to 205, a bipartisan proposal to add seven new round-trip flights to Reagan National Airport, potentially smoothing the road to final passage.
The House approved a bipartisan amendment that would maintain the current standards for pilot training, blocking a proposed change that had been supported by Representative Sam Graves, the Missouri Republican who leads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but that faced staunch opposition in the Senate.
The battles had threatened to muck up Congress’s opportunity to try to improve air travel for consumers amid thousands of recent flight delays or cancellations, an uptick in near collisions on runways, a strained air traffic controller work force and a surge in travel coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. And disruptions are only expected to worsen as climate change leads to more extreme weather that grounds flights.
The Senate Commerce Committee plans to consider its version of the bill this month, and the two sides then must reconcile their competing proposals by the end of September, when the current authorization expires. The Senate’s bill includes a number of consumer protections that airlines have denounced as overly burdensome and said would make air travel more expensive and less accessible.
Those measures are also likely to face resistance from the Republican-led House. Republicans have argued that deregulation of airlines has strengthened competition between carriers and improved the customer experience, and that new regulations would stifle competition.
“This legislation addresses many of the concerns we hear from the flying public every day,” Representative Garret Graves, Republican of Louisiana and chairman of the Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee, said on the House floor on Wednesday.
But he expressed concern in an interview that the Senate’s proposed consumer protections would be too wide-ranging and imprecise. “We’ve got to make sure that the solutions are being put in the right places, meaning you can’t blame the airlines for air traffic control, you can’t blame T.S.A. for airlines,” he said, referring to the Transportation Security Administration.
Democrats have accused the airline industry of resisting needed regulations.
“To be very blunt, the major obstacle to improving service is the industry’s lobbying,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who along with Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts led a group of Democratic senators in introducing a “passengers’ bill of rights” bill this year.
Among other measures, their legislation would bar airlines from charging “unreasonable or disproportionate” fees for services like checked bags and seat selection, and mandate that airlines compensate passengers denied boarding because of an oversold flight and refund baggage fees in the case of lost luggage.
The industry, Mr. Blumenthal said, “has dollars and lawyers and lobbyists that enable it to block effective reform, including a bill of rights for passengers.”
Marli Collier, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which represents major airlines, said in a statement that “it is in the interest of all U.S. airlines to provide a positive flight experience for all passengers.” She said the group’s members “abide by” and “frequently exceed” the Transportation Department’s regulations protecting consumers.
The F.A.A. bill has also become a magnet for dozens of narrower disputes, including regional fights that have defied the usual political alliances in Congress. One was the battle to defend the decades-old federal rule dictating the number of long-distance round-trip flights out of Reagan National Airport, which sits just across the Potomac River from the Capitol and is the airport of choice for many members of Congress.
Dozens of lawmakers, including some who could benefit from a more convenient commute to Washington if the so-called slot perimeter rule is changed, have pushed to increase the number of long-distance flights out of the airport, arguing that the change would increase competition and lower prices. Washington-area lawmakers whose constituents would be most affected by the change counter that the airport is already over capacity.
The rule has “limited access and increased costs” for people looking to visit Washington, Representative Burgess Owens, the Utah Republican who offered the provision to add flights, said on Wednesday.
But Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, had warned that any change to the rule would be “guaranteed to delay” the bill.
Congress is also at odds over raising the mandatory pilot retirement age from 65 to 67, a change sought by Representative Troy Nehls, Republican of Texas, whose brother is an airline pilot about to turn 65, and championed by Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The offices of Mr. Nehls and Mr. McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.
Proponents argue that the increase would help stem a tide of retirements draining an already-stretched pilot work force. Opponents in both parties, which include unions and the Biden administration, argue the change would not bolster the work force, but would affect safety, cause legal woes and pose logistical challenges because pilots older than 65 are barred from flying internationally.
The Senate bill has also been hamstrung for weeks over changes by Senators John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, and Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent, to a rule dictating the amount and type of flight time pilots must accrue to fly commercially.
The House’s vote on Wednesday to maintain the current standards struck down a provision in the bill that would have allowed certain pilots to count more hours of simulated flight toward the requirements.
“Our job as elected leaders is to protect public safety and to help ensure that no other family suffers the heartbreak of losing a loved one to an avoidable air tragedy,” Representative Nick Langworthy, the New York Republican who offered the amendment, said on the House floor on Wednesday. The pilot training rule was instituted after a plane crashed near Buffalo in 2009, killing everyone aboard.
Sam Graves, the Transportation Committee chairman, who is himself a commercially certified pilot, had argued that simulators offer prospective pilots more opportunities to train in scenarios they could not easily replicate in real life.
Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and the chairwoman of the aviation subcommittee, has insisted on maintaining the training standards and introduced a bill on Tuesday to strengthen and protect the rule.
“This is my red line. We cannot decrease flying hours at the risk of public safety,” Ms. Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot, told reporters. “I am not going to be complicit in efforts to lower the real-world flight hours requirements that protect the flying public, in the middle of an aviation safety crisis. And I will not budge on that.”