Senate Approves Legislation to Oversee US Air Traffic, Drones

October 3, 2018 Updated: October 4, 2018

WASHINGTON–Airline passengers can no longer be removed from flights under legislation approved by the Senate, while the government will write new rules to allow commercial drones to deliver packages and get new authority to shoot down dangerous ones.

The Senate, in a 93–6 vote on Oct. 3, approved a 1,200-page bill on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight, which includes some significant new airline passenger protections. For instance, the FAA must set minimum dimensions for passenger seats, including legroom and width “necessary for the safety of passengers.”

President Donald Trump plans to sign the bill within days, officials said.

But the airline industry scored a significant win after Congress dropped plans to mandate “reasonable and proportional” baggage and change fees. The bill also requires airlines to refund passengers for services they paid for but didn’t receive. It will enshrine in law a prohibition on passengers making mobile phone calls while in flight or using e-cigarettes.

It also requires airlines to allow passengers to check strollers for small children and gives the FAA authority to require airlines to allow pregnant passengers to board earlier.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R- S.D.) said the bill creates “new protections and enhancements for the flying public” and will provide stability for aviation policy for five years.

The bill requires the FAA to set rules authorizing commercial drone deliveries and gives the Justice and Homeland Security departments new authority to disable or destroy drones if they pose a threat to government facilities. The Trump administration had said it didn’t have the legal authority to address such threats.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress in May that U.S. enemies are exploring drones “to put our country in danger. ISIS has used armed drones to strike targets in Syria, and we are increasingly concerned that they will try the same tactics on our soil.”

The bill extends funding for airport improvements for five years, and requires the Transportation Security Administration to post real-time information online about wait times at airport security checkpoints.

The bill prohibits airlines from removing passengers from flights involuntarily after they clear the boarding gate. Such an incident was captured in 2017, on a video that went viral, showing a passenger being dragged from a United Airlines flight after he refused to give up his seat. United apologized and promised to no longer remove seated passengers.

The bill didn’t include rules adopted by a Senate panel to limit fees airlines could charge passengers for baggage or to change or cancel a flight. Airlines had lobbied against that provision.

Many major airlines have recently increased fees by $5 a bag. U.S. airline revenue from baggage and reservation change fees increased to almost $7.5 billion in 2017 from $5.7 billion in 2010. Other fees aren’t reported to regulators.

The legislation makes it unlawful to place a live animal in an overhead storage compartment, prompted by outrage over the death of a dog in March on a United flight.

The bill authorizes a return of “supersonic” transport with reduced sonic booms. It also provides for an additional $1.68 billion in immediate funding for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Florence. It also directs the FAA to establish an Office of Spaceports to promote infrastructure improvements and other steps for future space travel.

Reporting by David Shepardson