New FAA Reauthorization Bill Tackles Seat Size, Supersonic Jets

Congress gives a nod to new technologies in renewing the aviation safety agency's legal authority, while punting on real reforms.


Denis Belitskiy/Dreamstime.com

The House and Senate have agreed on compromise legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The legislation must pass by the end of the month to prevent the aviation safety agency from shutting down.

On Wednesday, the House passed H.R. 6897 which gives the FAA the legal authority to operate for the next five years and appropriates some $17 billion a year for its mission. The Senate is expected to pass the same bill this weekend.

At 1,200 pages, this year's FAA reauthorization is a brick of a bill, dealing with everything from mandated rest breaks for flight attendants, to designating an official national airmail museum. Despite its length, the legislation contains few substantive reforms.

"Overall, it's a rag bag of everything under the sun, but largely status quo. There's no major policy changes," says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.

Notably missing from the bill are long sought reforms to spin off the operation of the air traffic control system from the FAA to a nonprofit corporation, and an increase in the limit on fees—called "passenger facility charges"—that airports collect from passengers to pay for things like expanding airport terminals.

A coalition of free market groups, airlines, pilots, and even the air traffic controllers union had lobbied hard to include corporatizing the air traffic control system in this year's reauthorization bill, arguing that separating it from the FAA—and by extension the Congressional appropriations process—would enable quicker adoption of new technology, making for a more efficient air traffic control system.

The proposal gained traction in the House, and even got a personal endorsement from President Donald Trump, but was ultimately shunned by Senate Republicans and died on the vine.

Increased limits on passenger facility charges also went nowhere, sunk by opposition from airlines—who saw an increase in this independent revenue stream as weakening their bargaining power with airports—and some conservative groups who viewed the change as an impermissible tax increase.

Coupled with these missed opportunities, however, were some dodged bullets.

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Ed Markey (D–Mass.) introduced an amendment that would have given the FAA the ability to regulate fees charged by airlines for ticket changes. Consumer rights groups, meanwhile, demanded a provision requiring the FAA to regulate the size, width, and pitch of airline seats. These policy changes could have opened the door for even more regulation down the road.

Neither made it into the bill as proposed. The seat regulations will require only that the FAA regulate seat size to prevent potential safety hazards (which will likely leave seat size unchanged), while the change-fee amendment was stripped out entirely at the last minute, which Poole considers a real victory.

"We're not going to start down the slippery slope of reregulation of the price to fly on planes," he tells Reason.

The bill also paves the way for emerging aerial technologies, including commercial drone operations, which have been in a holding pattern for years. The new bill directs the FAA to come up with final rules for cargo-carrying drones within a year, instructs the agency to expedite rules for certifying air traffic control systems for unmanned vehicles, and adopts a risk-based approach to drone regulation. All of these policies have delighted the commercial drone industry.

"What this bill says is it's time to move forward with a robust, path for commercial UAS [unmanned aerial systems]," says Marc Drobac of the Small UAV Coalition, a trade group.

In opening the door for commercial drone operators however, the FAA has also put the squeeze on model aircraft enthusiasts, requiring them to take online knowledge tests, register their vehicles/toys, and also forbids them from flying above 400 feet.

Supersonic flight, currently prohibited in the United States, also might be on track toward legalization. This new legislation directs the FAA to consult with the aviation industry on what a regulatory framework for supersonic flight should look like, and issue a report to Congress within a year.

"From our perspective, this is the most forward-leaning language from Congress on supersonics since the 1960s," says Eli Dourado of Denver-based aviation company Boom, which is working on creating an airliner capable of going Mach 2.2. "It's clear that Congress wants a supersonic renaissance, and we think that, with policymaker support, the return of commercial supersonic flight is only a matter of time."

While this language about supersonic flight and commercial drone operations is encouraging, says Marc Scribner, a transportation expert with Competitive Enterprise Institute, it also insufficient without the broader aviation reforms that Congress punted on this year.

Our outdated air traffic control system, relying on World War II-era radar technology, forces planes to fly farther apart. Caps on passenger facility charges constrain the ability of airports to fund expansions of terminal facilities. Between those two outdated policies, airports can handle only so many passengers and planes, which in turn makes flying slower, and more expensive.

"Until we have a modern air traffic control system and until our airport policies modernize to deal with terminal area congestion, you're not going to see the benefits of supersonic, particularly transcontinental, because they're going to have to slow way down as they approach terminal areas," says Scribner.

Mass market supersonic flights and commercial drone deliveries are still a ways off, but so, too, are chances for further reforms. Provided the FAA bill passes—a near certainty at this point—it will be likely another five years before Congress takes up these issues again.

That could well feel like a lifetime for technologists trying to innovate in compliance with outdated government regulations.