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Here’s what flyers should know about the bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill

<i>Angus Mordant/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Passengers wait to board an American Airlines flight at LaGuardia Airport in New York City in April.
Angus Mordant/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Passengers wait to board an American Airlines flight at LaGuardia Airport in New York City in April.

By Gregory Wallace and Tami Luhby, CNN

(CNN) — Lawmakers have unveiled a bipartisan Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization deal, which aims to address the nation’s shortage of air traffic controllers and implement technology to reduce the risk of runway collisions but would not institute a controversial increase in the pilot retirement age.

The draft legislation from the House and Senate committees overseeing the agency sets the FAA’s priorities. It would authorize more than $105 billion in appropriations for the FAA and $738 million in appropriations for the National Transportation Safety Board for fiscal years 2024 through 2028.

A procedural move in the Senate last week made way for a vote as soon as this week. The temporary law guiding the FAA is set to expire on May 10.

Here’s what’s in the bill:

Codify airline refunds

The legislation would codify into law recently announced Department of Transportation rules on refunds when an airline cancels or significantly delays flights.

A refund would be required if a domestic flight is delayed for three hours and an international flight for six hours. Airlines’ websites would have to contain easy-to-find refund request buttons. 

Recently announced DOT rules go a step further, requiring automatic refunds. 

Airlines would also have to establish reimbursement policies for lodging, meals and transportation between lodging and the airport due to cancellations or significant delays directly attributable to the airline.

Set standard for travel credits

Under the bill, travel credits issued by airlines in lieu of refunds would have to be useable for at least five years.

Increase cockpit voice recording

Commercial aircraft would have to carry 25-hour cockpit voice recorders, under the legislation. That was a top ask of the NTSB and a substantial increase from the current two-hour standard.

The cockpit voice recorder is one of the two black boxes and is currently only required to capture two hours of sound from the cockpit. The NTSB says recordings that would be key to investigations have fallen outside the two-hour window and been overwritten.

Hire more air traffic controllers

The bill would also require the FAA to hire and train as many air traffic controllers as possible to close a gap of 3,000 vacancies. It would also mandate more research into how many controllers are needed at each tower and center and would increase access to training simulators in more air traffic control towers nationwide.

Improve runway safety

To reduce the number of collisions and near-collisions on runways, the FAA would be required to install additional runway technology at medium and large hub airports.

The technology is only installed at about three dozen US airports, according to the FAA, and played a role in alerting controllers that American Airlines and Delta Air Lines passenger jets were about to collide on a John F. Kennedy airport runway in New York City in January 2023.

The issue has not gone away. In just the last two weeks, the FAA announced investigations into two close calls at major US airports.

Enhance protections for airline workers

The legislation would put more teeth behind rules against attacks on aviation workers, which spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic, by expanding legal protections to ground-based employees like gate and check-in agents.

It would also enhance Transportation Security Administration-taught self-defense training for flight attendants so they can better protect themselves and respond to unruly passengers and other threats.

Here’s what’s not in the bill:

Mandate airline seat sizes

The bill would not mandate minimum airline seat sizes but instead would force the FAA to take a fresh look at sizing and airplane evacuation standards.

Some lawmakers have advocated for minimum sizes as some passengers grow increasingly frustrated with the shrinking size of coach seats. The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act required the agency to look into whether the tight configuration impedes customers’ ability to rapidly evacuate and to rule on minimum safe seat sizes.

But critics panned the tests it conducted in a model airplane for using only able-bodied adults – no luggage, kids or people with disabilities. When the FAA started collecting comments in the fall of 2022, more than 26,000 poured in.

The Consumer Federation of America, FlyersRights and other passenger advocates previously told the FAA that it should increase seat sizes on airplanes to improve travelers’ safety.

Raise pilots’ retirement age

The legislation does not call for raising the retirement age for commercial airline pilots to 67 from 65.

Airline interests have been pushing this move to address a nationwide shortage of pilots. But pilot unions have resisted the measure, calling for more research into whether that would be safe and disputing that airlines couldn’t find enough qualified candidates.

Congress last increased the retirement age for pilots to 65 from 60 in 2007.

Increase use of flight simulators

The bill would not allow pilots to substitute more time in flight simulators for time at the controls of an actual aircraft when qualifying for their licenses. A provision to do that scuttled plans at the last minute for a committee vote on the FAA reauthorization legislation last June.

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