A worker cleans a jet bridge at Paine Field in Everett, before passengers board an Alaska Airlines flight in March of 2019. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

A worker cleans a jet bridge at Paine Field in Everett, before passengers board an Alaska Airlines flight in March of 2019. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: FAA bill set to improve flight safety, experience

With FAA reauthorization, Congress proves it’s capable of legislating and not just throwing shade.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Blame our short attention spans and our fascination with low-stakes, high-drama verbal exchanges, but in the last couple of weeks you’ve probably heard more about the shade thrown between two members of the U.S. House than you have regarding a piece of legislation that carries far more importance for our daily lives, especially for those traveling by air with any frequency.

Not to bat an eyelash — fake or otherwise — at that exchange, but suffice to say that it’s what we’ve come to expect of a Congress that ranks among the least productive in modern history, if we’re counting adopted legislation sent to the president’s desk and not viral moments on social media.

But it’s that lack of production — and the slim majorities in both House and Senate that are partly responsible for this Congress’ meager record — that makes the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration worthy of notice, beyond what the legislation provides.

The FAA, reaching back nearly 100 years to passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926, is the federal agency responsible for securing the safety and efficiency of air transportation. With its reauthorization up for consideration every five years, Congress uses the opportunity to adopt new policy and make investments in the industry and its infrastructure.

The FAA’s reauthorization was actually due at the end of last September, but the deadline was extended three times to March 10, to May 10 and finally to the following week, said U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and one of the authors of the legislation. It has since passed House and Senate and was signed by President Biden. And in recent memory, Larsen said, that’s the quickest reauthorization — past its due date — that it’s received.

The result?

“It’s a great five-year bill,” Larsen said earlier this month as the House prepared to vote on the bill. “It sets aviation policy and direction in the United States for the next five years, keeps us at a gold standard for aviation safety and aviation innovation and provides some stronger consumer protections as well as accessibility provisions for folks.”

Among the provisions:

Infrastructure: The act budgets at least $650 million each year — $4 billion over five years — for airport construction and improvements, mostly at small- and medium-sized airports. In 2023, airports in Washington state received more than $94 million in Airport Improvement Program grants, including $5.5 million for Paine Field to rehabilitate the airport’s taxiway and apron and install perimeter fencing.

As well, funding includes $350 million at airports to replace firefighting foam and equipment that has been using PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals”; $200 million for runway safety projects; and $150 million for airport noise and carbon-emission reduction work.

Training: Another $60 million will fund aviation workforce grants to improve the training pipeline for pilots, aviation maintenance and manufacturing workers, such as a nearly $460,000 grant that went to Aviation Technical Services in Everett for high school seniors entering apprenticeship programs. In addition, $12 million is dedicated to an aviation education program to recruit, retain and advance under-represented communities in the industry.

Workforce: The FAA is required to step up hiring and training to fill some 3,000 vacancies among air traffic control staff, including review of necessary staffing levels at control towers. The mandatory retirement age for pilots, after debate and differing proposals between House and Senate bills, remains at 65 years, keeping consistency with the standard used by other nations, Larsen said.

Technology: New technology and innovation, of note for the innovation occurring in Everett and elsewhere in Snohomish County, the legislation opens the airport grants to programs developing hydrogen aviation-power programs, such as ZeroAvia’s zero-emission propulsion systems facility at Paine Field, as well as the electric propulsion systems under development at Everett’s magniX.

Safety: The FAA, after long debate and study regarding the use of drones, is now required to develop regulations to safety operate beyond-line-of-sight requirements for unmanned aircraft, such as proposed uses in spotting and monitoring wildfires.

Airlines are required to provide 25-hour cockpit voice recorders with protections to ensure recordings can’t be deliberately erased or tampered with.

Among funding for airport improvements are investments to expand the use of equipment that can prevent incidents that have resulted in near collisions of airliners.

Passenger protections: Airlines will be required to refund booked passengers on flights that are cancelled or significantly delayed, and must notify passengers of their right to an automatic refund. The bill directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to better regulate protections for passengers with disabilities to reduce damage to wheelchairs and other equipment and make better accommodations for mobility devices. Passengers with children under 12 are to be provided a seat next to children at no additional charge. And carriers also are required to provide access 24-hours-a-day to live customer service agents

Regarding recent concerns over production quality problems at Boeing, specifically with the 737 Max and the 787 Dreamliner, now built in South Carolina, Larsen said the FAA’s oversight of aircraft production was earlier addressed in a certification reform bill in 2020, but some of that work has been delayed because the FAA did not have an administrator confirmed until November of last year.

That administrator, Michael Whitaker, “now has the full authority to implement those reforms and make changes and to act when something occurs,” Larsen said, such as January’s blown-out door panel on an Alaska Airlines’ 737 Max plane.

Larsen’s counterpart in the reauthorization push, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate’s Commerce Committee, agreed the bill delivered big wins for travelers and the public.

“Consumers get hassle-free refunds and the guaranteed family seating they’ve been asking for. Local economies get a boost from expanding airports and airport capacity; every dollar invested in aviation infrastructure creates $2.50 in economic growth. Flying gets safer thanks to more inspectors and advanced near-miss technology,” Cantwell said in a release after Senate passage. “We’re going to make sure every tower has more air traffic controllers and our pilots are going to get better training,”

For those traveling this Memorial Day weekend or later this summer, there’s reason to thank Congress for taking time out of its infighting, political point-scoring and insult-hurling to get a few truly important things done.

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