David Harrison Wall Street Journal
House Approves FAA Bill Aimed at Easing Airline Labor Crunch 
July 20, 2023
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  • The House of Representatives approved legislation intended to ease an airline labor crunch, an effort to make flying more reliable in the face of surging travel demand.  

    The measure, which would raise the retirement age for pilots to 67 from 65 and recruit and train new air traffic controllers and other aviation workers, was passed by a vote of 351-69. 

    The bill, a five-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, now moves to the Senate where the Commerce Committee is still trying to reach agreement on a companion measure. Congress must pass the reauthorization measure, or a stopgap extension, before Oct. 1 to prevent a shutdown of the country’s aviation system. 

    Before the House bill’s passage, lawmakers praised the bipartisan nature of the legislation, saying it would make air travel safer and more efficient. 

    “It’s vital to our economy, to millions of American jobs and to the 850 million passengers that depend on our national airspace system every single year,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R., Mo.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which wrote the bill. 

    The Biden administration has also backed the House proposal even though the White House on Monday said it still fell short on improving consumer protections. The White House also said it wanted to preserve fee disclosure requirements that it said the bill would weaken. 

    A rise in travel demand in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic coupled with a persistent labor shortage among pilots, air-traffic controllers and other aviation workers has stressed airlines’ capacity. Airplanes have also narrowly avoided runway collisions on several occasions recently, which airline executives blamed on the stretched system. 

    The FAA reauthorization is “among the best investments that we could make for the traveling public and the U.S. economy right now,” United Airlines President Brett Hart said Thursday during an earnings conference call.  

    Several provisions were rejected as the legislation was filed.  

    On Wednesday night, lawmakers voted against an amendment to add seven slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a popular and congested airport serving the Washington, D.C., area. Reagan gives priority to regional flights under a perimeter rule that requires most destinations to be within 1,250 miles from the airport. The slots added in the amendment would have been available for flights beyond the perimeter. 

    Proponents of the amendment said it would make it easier for people from further away to visit the nation’s capital and said Wednesday night that they will continue pushing to expand access to Reagan airport in the Senate. Opponents, including most lawmakers from the Washington area, said adding more flights would increase airport congestion and noise. 

    Lawmakers voted to strike a provision that would have changed training requirements for pilots, allowing them to accrue more hours of experience in flight simulators. U.S. pilots generally need 1,500 of flying experience to become airline co-pilots unless they are former military pilots or graduates of university aviation programs. 

    Some airline executives say flight simulators offer better training for emergencies that can’t be practiced in the air. But opponents of the change, including families of the victims of a 2009 fatal plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., say real-world flight training has made flying safer. 

    The bill under consideration in the Senate would expand consumer protections and make it easier for people to get refunds when their flights are canceled or significantly delayed. The bill would also require airlines to better communicate with customers during flight disruptions. 

    Senators are also wrestling over whether to allow more slots at National Airport and over changes to pilot training requirements.  

    Sens. John Thune (R., S.D.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I., Ariz.) have sponsored a proposal that would allow airlines to establish their own structured training programs where certain pilots could obtain up to 250 hours toward their 1,500-hour training requirements. 

    But Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.), who credits her real-world flight training for saving her life when her Black Hawk helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq, said she would fight any attempt to change the 1,500-hour training requirement. 

    Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, which is writing the FAA reauthorization, said he expects the bill will be marked up as early as next week.