Five-year FAA bill clears U.S. House, boosting flights into Washington, D.C.

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Gate area at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, the closest of three large international airports to, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress)

The U.S. House voted 387-26 Wednesday to clear a bill to reauthorize $105 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration for the next five years — and to finalize a hotly debated deal adding flights at busy Washington Reagan National Airport.

Advocates for the bill, which won votes from every ideological corner of the often-divided House, touted its aviation safety and consumer provisions. The House vote sends the measure to President Joe Biden’s desk ahead of a Friday deadline. The Senate approved the legislation last week.

The only member to speak against the bill during floor debate Tuesday was Virginia’s Don Beyer, a Democrat who, like the entire U.S. Senate delegation from Maryland and Virginia, opposed a provision to add five incoming and five outgoing flights at Washington Reagan National Airport across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

The bill:

  • Increases funding for the Airport Improvement Program that funds infrastructure improvements at airports of all sizes across the country;

  • Requires the agency to hire more air traffic controllers;

  • Updates the aircraft safety certification process; and

  • Requires airlines to automatically refund passengers on flights delayed three hours or longer, among many other provisions in its more than 1,000 pages.

Missouri congressman ‘could not be more proud’

The bill’s passage was something of a career capstone for House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican and one of the few pilots in Congress.

“I’ve served in this House for more than 23 years and I’ve been looking forward to passing an FAA bill as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for a long time,” he said on the floor Tuesday. “This is the kind of bill that a chairman only gets to do once in their career and I could not be more proud of the final product that we put together.”

Graves is in his third term as the top Republican on the committee and, under House GOP rules, cannot seek another, though he can ask party leaders to waive that rule.

He highlighted protections in the bill for general aviation, a term that can apply to all non-commercial and non-military flights.

Rep. Rick Larsen, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, applauded several provisions in the bill, including the Airport Improvement Program funding, which he said could be used for alternative-fuel infrastructure and to mitigate noise and other harmful effects of airports in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The bill also creates a program to help airports replace firefighting foam made with PFAS, or forever chemicals, funds workforce development grants and bans airlines from charging families to sit together, the Washington Democrat said.

The bill “cements a safer, cleaner, greener, more innovative and accessible future for U.S. aviation,” Larsen said.

DCA flights

Many no votes in the House — and all in the Senate — came from members representing the states adjacent to Washington, D.C., who tried to remove a provision adding flights to Washington National, also called DCA.

Lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia have said the airport already strains to safely handle the traffic it currently operates. Adding flights will only worsen the safety environment, they said.

“I’m deeply concerned about the provisions that would aggravate dangerous conditions at National Airport,” Beyer said Tuesday. “I cannot support a bill that hurts my constituents, disrespects all the elected leaders from Virginia, Maryland and D.C., and directly harms our airport and the passengers who use it.”

Members from outside the capital region argued the additional flights would be a positive. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, said they would add “connectivity and economic expansion.”

Rep. Burgess Owens, a Utah Republican, also applauded the extra flights.

“This legislation (was) designed not for one airport and one airline, but for all of us,” he said. “It gives more convenience, more opportunities to families traveling into Washington, D.C.”

The five new routes have not been selected but some members, including Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is the ranking member on the Senate committee that oversees aviation, have speculated that San Antonio could be one beneficiary.

Research from Min-Seok Pang, a professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, Russell J. Funk, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, and Daniel Hirschman, a sociology professor at Cornell University, found that the U.S. House district represented by the chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee sees more commercial aviation service.

The data show transportation committee chairs saw flights to their districts increase by more than 5% on average from 1990 to 2019. Airlines also increased direct service to Washington from a chair’s district, the analysis, which was published last year in the academic journal Organization Science, showed. The numbers generally reverted to normal after the chair’s term.


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