WA lawmakers weigh refunds for canceled flights, air travel revamp

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Late on a Sunday night last month, four lawmakers — including two from Washington — announced they had come to a bipartisan agreement on a five-year, must-pass congressional bill to maintain America’s aviation system.

But the past few days have seen Congress scramble to pass the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill ahead of its Friday deadline.

The $105 billion FAA reauthorization includes new requirements for cockpit voice recorders — a change prompted in part by the Jan. 5 blowout aboard an Alaska Airlines flight — boosts hiring of air traffic controllers and safety inspectors, and includes recourse for passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.

The bill needs to first pass the Senate, which could vote as early as Thursday, then would move to the House of Representatives. Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who chairs the committee in charge of conducting FAA oversight, said Wednesday she expected to finish the bill Thursday.

Cantwell, chair of the Senate commerce committee, announced news of the agreement last month with U.S. Rep Rick Larsen, D-Everett, ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. They were joined by their Republican counterparts, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo.

Underscoring the importance of a strong aviation bill, lawmakers have cited recent incidents like near misses at airports where planes barely avoided collisions and the blowout aboard Alaska Flight 1282.

In January, a panel blew out of a Boeing 737 MAX 9 as the Alaska Airlines flight climbed out of Portland. Investigators found that workers at Boeing’s Renton assembly plant improperly secured the fuselage section, a plug covering a hole that could accommodate a door.

More on Alaska Airlines and the Boeing 737 MAX 9

As a result of the blowout, the 1,000-plus page aviation bill requires commercial airplanes to be equipped with recording devices that can store 25 hours of audio, a significant increase from the current devices that record for two hours. The need for longer recordings became “abundantly clear” after the Alaska Airlines incident, Cruz said last week on the Senate floor, when the cockpit recording in the moments after the blowout was overwritten.

The bill also includes a requirement that the FAA improve its staffing standards and set targets for hiring to address the shortage of approximately 3,000 air traffic controllers.

“Everyone knows that these air traffic controllers are what guides us every day to the safety of our destinations,” Cantwell said on the Senate floor last week. “This bill recognizes that we have shortchanged that investment, with air traffic controllers sometimes working as many as six days a week.”

For passengers, the bill requires refunds for anyone who is delayed three hours for a domestic flight or six hours for an international flight.

The new requirement codifies regulation from the Department of Transportation announced in April that says passengers are entitled to a refund if their flight is canceled or significantly changed and they don’t choose to be rebooked or accept travel credits. It also restricts airlines from charging fees to families who want to sit together.

“Passengers deserve to get their money back when an airline owes them — without headaches or haggling,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a news release. 

The reauthorization bill doesn’t mention Boeing specifically, but aviation publication The Air Current reported Tuesday that the bill includes a provision that would grant the company five additional years to continue building 767 freighters, which are assembled at its Everett plant. Boeing would be granted a waiver from international aircraft emissions regulations, allowing the company to build the cargo carriers until 2033, The Air Current reported.

Funding for the agency, which regulates how aircraft are manufactured, operated and maintained, also includes $738 million for the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aviation accidents, as well as other incidents.

The FAA’s mandate has been extended three times since legislation expired in September to give lawmakers more time to hammer out an agreement.

The House on Wednesday approved a one-week extension ahead of the Friday deadline amid Senate negotiations on a slate of proposed amendments, some related to aviation and others with no aviation connection but seen as last-minute efforts to tack on legislation.

The Kids Off Social Media Act, for example, an amendment introduced by Cruz and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, would restrict social media companies from allowing anyone younger than 13 to create accounts or profiles, and from providing algorithm-served content to any user younger than 17.

Without FAA reauthorization, the agency could face some form of a shutdown. In 2011, thousands of FAA workers were furloughed following a two-week congressional impasse over the FAA budget.

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