US Senate passes bill improving air safety, customer service

washington — The Senate has passed a $105 billion bill designed to improve air safety and customer service for air travelers, a day before the law governing the Federal Aviation Administration expires. 

The bipartisan bill, which comes after a series of close calls between planes at the nation’s airports, would boost the number of air traffic controllers, improve safety standards and make it easier for customers to get refunds after flights are delayed or canceled. 

The bill passed the Senate 88-4. The legislation now goes to the House, which is out of session until next week. The Senate is considering a one-week extension that would give the House time to pass the bill while ensuring the FAA isn’t forced to furlough around 3,600 FAA employees. 

The bill stalled for several days this week after senators from Virginia and Maryland objected to a provision that would allow an additional 10 flights a day to and from the heavily trafficked Reagan Washington National Airport. Other senators have tried to add unrelated provisions, as well, seeing it as a prime chance to enact their legislative priorities. 

But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called a vote Thursday evening after it became clear that senators would not be able to agree on amendments to the bill before it expires. After the bill passed, leaders in both parties were still working out how to pass an extension and ensure the law does not expire on Friday. The House passed a one-week extension earlier this week. 

The FAA has been under scrutiny since it approved Boeing jets that were involved in two deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019. The Senate legislation would govern FAA operations for the next five years and put several new safety standards in place. 

The bill would increase the number of air traffic controllers and require the FAA to use new technology designed to prevent collisions between planes on runways. It would require new airline planes to have cockpit voice recorders capable of saving 25 hours of audio, up from the current two hours, to help investigators. 

It would also try to improve customer service for travelers by requiring airlines to pay a refund to customers for flight delays — three hours for a domestic flight and six for an international one.  

In addition, the bill would prohibit airlines from charging extra for families to sit together and triple the maximum fines for airlines that violate consumer laws. And it would require the Transportation Department to create a “dashboard” so consumers can compare seat sizes on different airlines. 

The FAA says that if the law expires on Friday, the 3,600 employees would be furloughed without a guarantee of back pay starting at midnight. The agency would also be unable to collect daily airport fees that help pay for operations, and ongoing airport improvements would come to a halt. 

No one in “safety critical” positions — such as air traffic controllers — would be affected if the deadline is missed, the FAA says, and the safety of the flying public would not be at risk. 

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