Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Senate Committee Approves Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill • Bill opens the door to enhanced screening of pilots with possible mental-health problems

The Wall Street Journal
March 16, 2016 11:46 a.m. ET

A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday approved a bill mandating a big shift in how airlines treat passengers and the way aircraft are certified, while opening the door to enhanced screening of pilots with possible mental-health problems.

The bipartisan legislation, reauthorizing the FAA’s programs and powers through the end of September 2017, also includes other hot-button issues such as expanded use of small commercial drones across the U.S., potentially even at night and outside the sight of operators.

Adopted by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation after barely an hour of discussion, the measure doesn’t follow the lead of House Republican leaders who favor shifting the entire air traffic control system under the control of an independent, nonprofit corporation.

But even without that divisive proposal, the package is studded with controversial provisions that could prompt tussles on floor of the Senate.

One of the most timely and closely watched parts of the bill calls for the FAA to consider enhanced testing of cockpit crews to identify psychological conditions, including depression and suicidal thoughts or tendencies, that could interfere with safe operation of an airplane. Aviators with previously diagnosed psychological disorders could be subjected to more detailed and frequent medical checks.

The provision comes less than a week after the release of the final investigative report detailing how a mentally unbalanced Germanwings co-pilot last year intentionally crashed his Airbus A320 into the French Alps, killing all 150 on board.

The measure also includes beefed-up consumer protection language requiring regulators to enact rules ensuring that airlines refund fees in the event baggage is lost or delayed beyond a specific period. In addition, the bill mandates greater transparency in disclosing other fees charged to passengers.

The committee narrowly rejected an amendment calling on the Transportation Department to determine what constitutes “unreasonable” fees to change tickets.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican chairman of the panel who led the fight against the amendment, said the bill already incorporates more consumer protection provisions “than any (FAA) bill we have considered in recent memory.”

Another section of the bill is intended to “bolster efforts to keep drones away from airports and other sensitive areas,” Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said in opening up the hearing.

The committee voted 13 to 8 to mandate drone users to incorporate beefed-up privacy protections into their operations.

For the first time, the FAA would be specifically required to detail economic benefits derived by airlines and other users of the nation’s airspace from mandated installation of updated air-traffic control equipment. This issue also has been a point of contention for many years between regulators and industry officials.

The panel punted on the long-running issue of requiring cargo airlines to operate under the same pilot-fatigue rules as passenger carriers. But an amendment may be considered during debate by the full Senate.

Both the House and Senate are moving toward passing a separate, short-term extension of the FAA’s authority—perhaps only lasting a few months—before the agency’s current legislative authorization expires.

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