President Biden on Thursday, May 16, 2024 signed Sen. Maria Cantwell’s bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for five years.

The bill, which garnered overwhelming bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House, introduces new safety regulations, enhances consumer protections, and increases the hiring of air traffic controllers.

Sen. Cantwell emphasized the significance of the legislation, stating:

“This landmark law is about reinforcing and reinvigorating the nation’s aviation system. Following flight disruptions, runway close calls and consumer frustrations, this law is set to deliver the safest, most reliable aviation system in the world,” said Sen. Cantwell. “Starting today, passengers will have the right to hassle-free refunds. Plane manufacturers will see more safety inspectors on factory floors and tougher safety standards from FAA. With this law, airports will have more air traffic controllers in towers and bigger investments in runway safety technology. And it will expand research and innovation to modernize air travel and boost local economies nationwide.” 

The legislation includes several key measures aimed at improving safety and efficiency in the aviation sector. Passengers will benefit from hassle-free refunds, while plane manufacturers will face stricter safety standards and more safety inspectors on factory floors. Airports will see an increase in air traffic controllers and investments in runway safety technology.

Additionally, the law expands research and innovation to modernize air travel and boost local economies.

Some major highlights of this historic bipartisan bill are:

  • Sets Clear Right to Refunds: For the first time, passengers will have clear standards for hassle-free refunds codified in federal law when an airline cancels or significantly delays a flight.
  • Triples Civil Penalties for Violations: To hold airlines accountable, the bill triples the U.S. Department of Transportation’s statutory civil penalty for consumer violations from $25,000 per violation to $75,000.
  • Mandates 25-Hour Cockpit Voice Recording Technologies: The bill requires commercial airplanes, including those newly manufactured, to be equipped with 25-hour cockpit voice recording devices to preserve critical data and inform future safety reforms consistent with NTSB recommendations. Currently, commercial airplane cockpit voice recording devices only record for two hours – which is part of the reason why the Alaska Flight 1282 cockpit voice recording is lost. 
  • Addresses Air Traffic Controller (ATC) Shortages: With a shortage of approximately 3,000 air traffic controllers nationwide, the bill requires that FAA implement improved staffing standards developed with the labor workforce to close staffing gaps. The bill also requires FAA to set maximum hiring targets to increase air traffic controller staffing.
  • Updates FAA Staffing Model to Hire More Aviation Safety Inspectors: The bill requires FAA to update its aviation safety inspector staffing model for a more accurate assessment of the number needed to perform safety oversight, and to use it to boost hiring of manufacturing safety inspectors, engineers, and technical specialists per year.
  • Expands Research at the FAA’s Joint Centers of Excellence for Advanced Materials at UW: The bill ensures the continued operation of the FAA’s Joint Centers of Excellence for Advanced Materials, co-led by the University of Washington and Wichita State University, and expands its research into composites, thermoplastics, carbon fiber polymers, and additive manufacturing to make aircraft lighter and more fuel efficient. To improve aircraft accessibility for individuals with disabilities, the bill expands the Center’s research focus into commercial aircraft crash worthiness and passenger safety, including materials to facilitate safe wheelchair restraint systems aboard aircraft.

The impact of this legislation will be felt in South King County, where Sea-Tac Airport is poised to benefit from the increased safety measures and enhanced air traffic control. The improvements are expected to bolster the local economy and improve the overall travel experience for passengers in the region.