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US Senate leaders unveil $107 billion aviation policy bill

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By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee on Monday introduced a bipartisan aviation policy bill that would boost runway safety, track high-altitude balloons and prohibit airlines from charging fees for families to sit together.

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, top Republican Ted Cruz and the aviation subcommittee leaders — Senators Tammy Duckworth and Jerry Moran — proposed a $107 billion five-year Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill. The committee will take up the bill on Thursday, while a House panel will consider its version on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Cantwell said the bill “sets the first-ever clear ticket refund standards for delayed flights and will penalize airlines that sell tickets on flights that they don’t have the staff or technology to operate.”

Still, the bill would not set a minimum seat size for airline seats and does not adopt many consumer protections sought by President Joe Biden’s administration including compensation for lengthy delays caused by airlines. Also, the proposals do not address some contentious issues like raising the maximum age for pilots or expanding the number of longer flights allowed from Washington National Airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating six runway incursion events since January including some that could have been catastrophic. The Senate bill “requires the FAA to increase runway safety by deploying the latest airport surface detection equipment and technologies.”

The bill would make permanent a Transportation Department website feature called a dashboard that allows consumers to compare information about airlines. It also would require the department to also create another dashboard that shows consumers minimum seat sizes for each U.S. airline.

The bill also includes a proposal from Senator Mark Kelly to mandate tracking systems on high-altitude weather and research balloons to help the U.S. military differentiate between potential threats. He called for the idea after U.S. fighter jets shot down a Chinese balloon in February.

The Senate bill would ban family seating fees as does the House bill. It would prohibit airlines from reducing or devaluing frequent flyer program unless the air carrier provides 90 days notice.

Airlines for America, which represents American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and others, praised the House bill saying it would “provide long-term certainty for the U.S. aviation industry.”

The Senate bill would require refund request buttons at the top of their websites and double USDOT statutory civil penalties for aviation consumer violations from $25,000 to $50,000 per violation.

Airlines would be required to display key ancillary fees to customers prior to booking. Airports would have to display “know your rights” posters with information about passenger rights.

The Senate would also require increased FAA oversight of helicopters, new safety management systems, equipment upgrades and flight data monitoring. The House proposal would mandate by 2030 an increase to the recording time of cockpit voice recorders from the current two-hour loop to a proposed 25-hour loop, and require a cockpit video recorder.

(Reporting by David Shepardsond; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

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