The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) funding and operating authority will expire after Sept. 30, 2023, unless Congress passes a reauthorization bill. While the clock is ticking, congressional leaders — serving on the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — are debating the details of a potential bill and what future funding may look like for the FAA. During February and March, the Aviation Subcommittee conducted four hearings focusing on FAA reauthorization.
FAA reauthorization bills always focus on funding and operating authority, but in years when Congress needs to bring up reauthorization, new legislative priorities take hold. Before the current reauthorization act was finalized in 2018, the bill contained legislative changes regarding finances for airport capital projects, the safety of unmanned aircraft systems (i.e., drones), minimizing aircraft noises, and verification for the safe transport of lithium batteries.
Although the contents of the 2023 reauthorization bill are still up for debate, the four public hearings conducted by the Aviation Subcommittee provide some clues for what priorities could make it into this year’s bill.
Among issues covered during the subcommittee hearings:
- Advanced air mobility (AAM). This is a relatively new concept that uses electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to move people and goods between locations underserved or inaccessible by surface transportation or traditional aviation. With the first AAM vehicles set to enter service in late 2024, the FAA has been pushing to issue operational and training guidelines that will make it easier to use AAM in commercial operations.
- Workforce challenges. Industry representatives and congressional leaders discussed the need to maintain a robust workforce in the general aviation industry and at the FAA. Specifically, the number of certified air traffic controllers decreased every year between 2012 and 2021. Similarly, airlines are continuing to experience increased hiring activity to recruit new pilots to replace those who have reached the mandatory retirement age of 65. During hearings, subcommittee members and industry professionals discussed impediments — such as costs — for young people interested in aviation.
- Comprehensive passenger experience. Subcommittee members and consumer advocacy groups are driving the conversation around passenger experience, but their objectives are distinct. Consumer advocacy groups want to eliminate “junk fees,” especially for family seating, and they want airlines to pay for consumer flights that are delayed or canceled. Subcommittee members discussed issues related to airport security, the Transportation Security Administration PreCheck program and air traffic control.
While Congress and the Biden administration work toward FAA reauthorization, other priorities may take center stage, including “Build America Buy America” grant requirements, providing additional funding for workforce training, increasing Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding and prioritizing airport resiliency. AIP funding supports airports of all sizes, but other funding mechanisms supporting small and regional airports could be integrated into an FAA reauthorization act, including funding for the Essential Air Service Program and the Small Community Air Service Development Program.
The funding legislation now in effect, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, received praise from the aviation industry for its five-year timeline. Although it required numerous extensions to approve the 2018 bill, it was faster than the 2012 bill that took five years to complete. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leadership has indicated that it would be preferable for the 2023 bill to incorporate a five-year time frame before funding and operating authority expire.
Since 1938 — when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Civil Aeronautics Act — the federal government has held some regulatory authority over the aviation industry. While the COVID-19 pandemic created chaos in the industry as passengers avoided flights and older pilots retired, a new FAA reauthorization bill could address workforce shortages, emerging technologies and passenger concerns.
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