WASHINGTON — Congress began considering critical aviation legislation on Tuesday in the aftermath of recent close calls involving airline and cargo jets at airports in New York and Texas.
Lawmakers celebrated the small number of deaths on airline flights in the United States since a 2009 crash that killed 50 people, but they noted the recent scary incidents.
“It shows that even following the safest decade in our history, our aviation system is clearly in need of some urgent attention,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Graves' committee held its first hearing on a must-pass bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration by Sept. 30. The FAA regulates airlines and aircraft manufacturers and manages the nation's airspace.
The hearing highlighted issues ranging from FAA technology — which broke down last month, snarling U.S. air travel for a day — to the size of airline seats.
FAA legislation usually focuses on safety, and that is likely to be the case again this year. Consumer groups also are pushing Congress to include a number of passenger-friendly provisions that are opposed by the airline industry. Some of the proposals would require airlines to:
- Quickly put passengers whose flights are canceled or significantly delayed on another flight — even if that means paying to put them on a competing airline.
- Increase compensation and reimbursement of expenses for passengers affected by delays and cancellations.
- Let parents and minor children sit together without paying additional seat-assignment fees; the groups say a 2016 directive to the Transportation Department has been held up.
- Include a seat, boarding pass, carry-on bag, personal item and water in the price of all tickets.
It's not clear that anything Congress might do would have prevented close calls between planes last month at New York's JFK Airport, when an American Airlines plane taxied across a runway being used for takeoff by a Delta Air Lines jet, and last weekend in Austin, Texas, when air traffic controllers cleared a FedEx cargo plane to land on a runway from which a Southwest Airlines jet was taking off. In both cases, quick reactions by air traffic controllers or pilots averted disaster.
Lawmakers pressed an FAA official and other witnesses on technology upgrades, the need for quicker evacuations during emergencies, and minimum experience for airline pilots — that was raised from 250 hours of flying time to 1,500 hours after the 2009 crash.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., asked whether more exemptions to the 1,500-hour rule are needed so airlines have enough pilots to serve smaller communities.
No, said Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, in defending current standards for pilots.
“We're in the safest period in aviation history right now, and a lot of that is because of these very rules,” he said.