Divisive Pilot-Training Amendment Added to Senate FAA Bill

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By Shaun Courtney

Components of the House and Senate bills to reauthorize aviation programs combined with a shrinking number of work days could prevent Congress from passing a multi-year Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization before the current authority expires Sept. 30.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved June 29 by voice vote a bill to reauthorize the FAA for four years. However, it includes an amendment by Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) that sparked partisan division during an otherwise smooth markup. The amendment would address a pilot shortage at regional airlines by providing flexibility in training.

Current law requires 1,500 hours of in-air training for co-pilots. Thune’s amendment would let the FAA administrator decide if simulation or other “structured and disciplined training courses” should count toward the total.

Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked committee ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to pass along to the committee that he would “use whatever parliamentary tactics that he has” to block a bill that contained any such provision.

Thune told reporters after the session he feels the pilot shortage is a “brewing crisis” and that he hopes he can negotiate something with Democrats before the bill comes to the Senate floor.

Aviation Subcommittee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who offered several options during debate to make Thune’s amendment more palatable, said she isn’t sure if Senate Republicans will work to address Democrats’ concerns with the pilot training provision.

“If they don’t, I don’t think the bill is going to see the light of day. And that’s too bad because there are other important things in there that we’d like to see,” Cantwell told Bloomberg BNA.

Deadly 2009 Crash

Attending the committee session June 29 were family members of victims of Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed in 2009 into a home in New York, killing everyone on board. Advocacy by crash victims’ families contributed to the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010 and the FAA rule requiring 1,500 hours of in-air training for co-pilots, who previously needed 250 hours in the air.

While Thune’s amendment was approved by a voice vote, a roll call vote on Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s (D-Ill.) amendment to counteract Thune’s amendment was voted down along party lines.

“We’re willing, as I said, to work with the folks who have a different point of view about this, but I do think that we’ve got a serious crisis brewing in rural areas of the country, smaller communities and smaller airports,” Thune told reporters after the hearing.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) on June 27 offered an amendment similar to Thune’s on the House FAA reauthorization bill, but later withdrew it, mentioning the “political and emotional” issues surrounding pilot training.

“We didn’t deal with it. I think it’s something to be left alone the way it is,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) later told Bloomberg BNA about changing pilot training hours.

Air Traffic Control

Shuster has his own controversial provision in the House FAA bill, which T&I approved June 27: spinning off the air traffic control function from the FAA into a multi-stakeholder, non-profit entity to be established.

The Senate bill does not include such language. Thune said he remains open-minded about the proposal, but is waiting to see what happens in the House. If the House version passes, Thune said he expects “a great amount of work in conference” to resolve the differences between the two bills.

Nelson, the Senate transportation committee ranking member, was more blunt.

“It’s not going to pass the Senate,” he told reporters about changing air traffic control. “That’s why it’s not in the bill.”

Nelson also questioned whether the bill would pass the House. A similar 2016 proposal wasn’t brought to the House floor for a vote because it lacked support.

When asked whether he thought he would be able to get an FAA bill with air traffic control passed before the current authorization expires Sept. 30, Shuster told Bloomberg BNA: “I’m not looking at anything else but Sept. 30.”

Floor Time

While Thune has for months said he hoped to get FAA to a vote in July, more pressing issues like health care could stand in the way.

“Right now the number of days we have available to us before the August break are somewhat limited and the things that we have to do in that period are going to be I think fairly time consuming. So, we’ll see,” Thune told reporters after the markup.

Whenever the federal aviation program reauthorization makes it to the Senate floor, Nelson said he is optimistic the chamber will pass its version with bipartisan support.

“I wouldn’t be surprised, if we get agreement on this other thing, on the 1,500 hours, if we didn’t do it by unanimous consent,” Nelson told reporters.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

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