In the past week, the U.S. House and U.S. Senate separately proposed legislation to reauthorize and fund the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). While there are similarities and overlapping provisions in the two bills, there are many differences. For example, while the House’s version provides great funding and revitalization of the general aviation community, the Senate’s version does not. By way of further example, the Senate’s version provides sweeping provisions for what it calls “consumer protections” which would drastically alter a commercial airline’s financial obligations in the event of a delayed flight and requires hotlines for the general public. The House version takes a softer stance on such issues.    

The business, commercial, and general aviation communities should take note of our key takeaways from the two competing bills and monitor the developments in Congress over the summer as we approach the September 30 expiration deadline of Congress’ FAA authorization. Below we focus on certain highlights from the two pieces of legislation, including part 121 air carriers, advanced air mobility, general aviation, and consumer protections.

Bill Proposed by U.S. House of Representatives 

Establishing rules requiring Part 121 Air Carriers to be Equipped with Voice and Video Recorders. Within seven years after enactment of the House bill, an air carrier certified under part 121 may not operate an aircraft under part 121 that is not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder and cockpit video recorder capable of recording at least 25 hours of data. 

Updating requirements for medical equipment on Part 121 Operations.  Within 18 months after the date of enactment of the House bill, the FAA is to consider, review, and update as appropriate the emergency medical equipment and medical kits in part 121 operations.  The House bill specifically calls out the possible need for additional medical equipment to address emergency medical needs of children and pregnant women, opioid overdoses, anaphylaxis, and cardiac arrest.

Establishing a national airspace system cyber threat management process to protect the national airspace system cyber environment.  This includes FAA responsibility for conducting national airspace system cyber incident analyses and working with other federal agencies to accomplish this mission. Under the House bill, cyber incidents include electronic attacks such as jamming and spoofing using the electromagnetic spectrum.  The House bill would also require the FAA to convene a rulemaking committee to help accomplish the FAA’s objectives.

Maintaining the nation’s leading global role in aviation through the safe and efficient integration of AAM technology and infrastructure.  This includes plans to safely integrate powered-lift aircraft into the nation’s airspace and to address related air traffic control (ATC) challenges.  The House bill provides that consideration should be given to the use of third-party service providers to manage increased operations in controlled airspace to support and supplement the work of air traffic controllers.  The House bill provides the FAA with authority to further develop powered-lift specific procedures for airports, heliports, and veriports, and to enhance the infrastructure overall for AAM activities. The House bill also provides for numerous measures to encourage beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations, that is, to increase the pace and uniformity of the FAA BVLOS approval process.

Piloting and operating AAM aircraft.  The House bill requires the FAA to develop a special federal aviation rulemaking, and eventually permanent rules, for pilot certification and operations of AAM.  A permanent pathway for aircraft certification of powered-lift aircraft would also be required.  Before any final reauthorization text is agreed upon, some of these provisions will need to be reconciled with the fact that the FAA published an NPRM on powered-lift piloting and operations on June 14, 2023, which we discuss and comment on here.

Performance-based rulemaking.  In line with the FAA’s current use of Part 21 for type certification of piloted powered-lift, the House bill requires the FAA to consider “performance-based regulations” for unmanned and remotely-piloted operations that will arise in the future.

General aviation. The House bill calls for renewing funding for airport infrastructure with a focus on investments for small and GA airports (with $50 million set aside for development of GA aircraft hangars and development of transient ramp parking), and using GA to attract new talent to aviation, to strengthen the aviation workforce and workforce pipeline.

Encouraging the helicopter industry to install crash-resistant fuel systems.  The House bill calls for an update to the 2018 report concerning Rotorcraft Occupant Protection, assessing whether and to what extent crash-resistant fuel systems could have prevented fatalities, and to develop recommendations for either the FAA Administrator or the helicopter industry to encourage expediting the installation of crash-resistant fuel systems regardless of original certification and manufacture date. 

Improvements to processes and protocols of the FAA office of aerospace medicine, including the specific issue of pilot mental health.  For instance, the House bill provides that an aeromedical working group shall review policies and guidance relating to ADD and ADHD and evaluate whether medications used to treat ADD and ADHD may be safely prescribed to airmen.  The House bill also provides that the FAA should review protocols and policies relating to neurological disorders, cardiovascular conditions, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.  Pursuant to the House bill, a pilot mental health task group will be established to provide recommendations and best practices for detecting, assessing, and reporting mental health conditions and treatment options as part of pilot aeromedical assessments. The task force will also be responsible for implementing improvements in the training of Aviation Medical Examiners to identify mental health conditions among pilots and reduce the stigma of assistance for mental health in the aviation industry. 

Consumer Protections.  Unlike the sweeping provisions in the Senate bill detailed below, the House bill takes a softer approach, requiring that each air carrier “establish policies” and to submit a 1-page document describing the rights of their passengers, including guidelines for compensation (regarding rebooking options, refunds, meals, and lodging) for flight delays, cancellations, and diversions, as well as compensation for mishandled baggage, wheelchairs, or other mobility aids.

The sweeping House bill provides for myriad other actions such as reinforcing the FAA’s partnership in the Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions Initiative; modernization and digitalization of FAA forms and processes in an effort to eliminate backlogs in the FAA aircraft registry and Part 135 certifications; addressing industry workforce challenges through the removal of barriers pursuing aviation careers, improving training standards, and efforts to expand the aviation workforce overall, as well as policies and practices to improve transition between the military and civilian workforces; investing in the next generation of aviators, mechanics, manufacturers, and other aviation professionals through the establishment of the National Center for the Advancement of Aerospace; and proposal of a second deputy FAA administrator focused on operational safety and a new FAA ombudsman role to advocate specifically on behalf of inquiries and requests to the agency.  Interestingly, the House bill proposes a provision which would allow for an extra 150 hours of flight simulator time to count toward a requirement that new pilots have 1,500 hours of experience. 

On June 13th, the proposed bill was formally referred to the House subcommittee on aviation. 

Bill Proposed by U.S. Senate

On June 13, the Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), along with Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Aviation Subcommittee Chair Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) unveiled their $107 billion proposed bill to fund the FAA: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2023.  Significant provisions in the Senate bill include:

A handful of “consumer advancements.”  This includes full refunds if a domestic flight is delayed at least three hours or an international flight is delayed at least six hours (assuming a non-refundable ticket); requirements for airlines to include “easy-find” links on their websites for customers requiring a refund and would require airlines to provide free, round-the-clock access to customer service agents by phone, live chat, or text message; doubling of the civil penalty for aviation consumer violations to $50,000 per incident; putting a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary in charge of the Transportation Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection; and protections as it concerns frequent flyer programs such as not reducing or devaluing the befits, rewards, points, or other accrued value of an existing account holder of a frequent flyer program unless the air carrier provides at least 90 days’ notice.

UAS and AAM Development.  The Senate bill directs the FAA to establish a pathway for UAS BVLOS operations, and calls for the creation of an FAA Office of Advanced Aviation Technology and Innovation to serve as an entry point for new entrant stakeholders and to develop a strategy to fully integrate new technologies into the national airspace.  The Senate bill also calls for an aviation rulemaking committee on the certification of powered-lift aircraft and on propulsion systems used in advanced air mobility. 

Helicopter Safety.  No later than 270 days after enactment, the FAA must task the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee with reviewing and assessing the need for changes to the safety requirements for turbine-powered rotorcraft certificated for six or more passenger seats in relation to flight data recorders, flight data monitoring, and terrain awareness and warning systems.

Recording Devices.  The Senate bill requires all aircraft operating under part 121 and 135 to be fitted with cockpit voice recorders and a flight data recorder that are each capable of recording the most recent 25 hours of data; and prohibiting any person from deliberately erasing or tempering with such recorders following an NTSB reportable event. 

Consistent and Timely Pilot Checks for Air Carriers.  A working group would be established for purposes of reviewing, evaluating, and making recommendations on check pilot functions for air carriers operating under part 135. 

Cabin Air Safety.  No later than 60 days after enactment, the Senate bill requires the FAA to report on the feasibility, efficacy, and cost-effectiveness of certification and installation of systems to evaluate bleed air quality, and no later than one year after enactment, the Administrator may issue an NPRM to establish requirements for air carriers under part 121 with respect to incidents onboard involving oil and hydraulic fluid fume events.  This may include training for flight attendants, pilots, aircraft maintenance technicians, airport first responders, and emergency responders on how to respond to incidents on aircraft involving smoke or fume events as well as the development of investigative procedures for the FAA to follow after receipt of a report of a fume event in which at least one passenger or crew member required medical attention.  Installation of detectors on aircraft may be considered as well. 

Alternative fuels.  The Senate bill provides for $1.8 billion for FAA research, engineering, and development to research alternative jet fuels to cut carbon emissions and improve fuel efficiency. 

Incorporation of emerging technology.  The Senate bill also proposes studies to support electronic propulsion and hypersonic aircraft technologies into the national airspace.

Mental health.  The Senate bill calls for “improvements” to FAA mental health protocols including a pilot’s mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety and the use of medication for such conditions, as well as improvements to ADD/ADHD policies, which will be assisted through the use of a Working Group to make appropriate recommendations. 

Overall, the Senate proposed bill gives much less attention to the general aviation community. 

As noted, the FAA’s current authorization from Congress expires on September 30.  Stay tuned as the two bills are considered and reconciled by Congress.  It is noteworthy that both the House and Senate bills are proposed in a bipartisan fashion, which increase the odds of reconciliation and ultimately a final piece of bipartisan legislation to be signed by President Biden.