Congress passes aviation bill to close airport security gaps

In this May 25 photo, passengers push their carry-on belongings at a newly designed passenger screening lane unveiled at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta.

WASHINGTON (AP) – Congress passed an aviation bill Wednesday that attempts to close gaps in airport security and shorten screening lines, but leaves thornier issues unresolved.

The bill also extends the Federal Aviation Administration’s programs for 14 months at current funding levels. It was approved in the Senate by a vote of 89 to 4. The House had passed the measure earlier in the week and it now goes to President Barack Obama, who must sign the bill by Friday when the FAA’s current operating authority expires to avoid a partial agency shutdown.

Responding to attacks by violent extremists associated with the Islamic State on airports in Brussels and Istanbul, the bill includes an array of provisions aimed at protecting “soft targets” outside security perimeters. Other provisions designed to address potential “insider threats” would toughen vetting of airport workers and other employees with access to secure areas, expand random employee inspections and require reviews of perimeter security. Investigators suspect a bomb had been smuggled aboard a Russian Metrojet airliner that disintegrated over Egypt last year.

The measure is the most significant airport security bill to pass Congress in a decade, said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

But it also is notable for what it doesn’t contain: A plan to remove air traffic control operations from the FAA and put them under the control of a private, non-profit corporation run primarily by segments of the aviation industry.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the airline industry have made privatizing air traffic control a top priority. But they ran into opposition from other powerful committee chairmen who don’t want to cede oversight responsibility for a large share of the nation’s aviation system to a private corporation. Other segments of the aviation industry also objected to the plan, saying they feared the corporation would be dominated by airline interests.

Airlines say privatization is needed because the FAA’s culture is too slow and inflexible to complete the air traffic system’s transition from old radar technology to satellites. The modernization has dragged on for more than a decade and fallen short of promised financial benefits and reduced congestion.

Shuster hasn’t given up on the plan and may revive it next year when Congress will face a new deadline to extend FAA’s authority.

The bill authorizes a doubling of Transportation Security Administration teams that stop and search suspicious passengers in airport public areas that are outside the security perimeter, often using bomb-sniffing dogs.

It also authorizes TSA to donate unneeded security equipment to foreign airports with direct flights to the United States, and directs TSA to reconfigure security systems at three to six airports, an initial step to increase efficiency and reduce vulnerabilities in terminals.

The bill also requires TSA to ensure PreCheck screening lanes are open during high-volume travel times. And it authorizes a trial program to develop and test more efficient passenger and luggage screening systems.

The bill also includes several consumer protections. Airlines would have to refund checked bag fees to passengers whose luggage is lost or is delayed 12 hours or more for domestic flights or 15 hours or more for overseas flights. They’ll have to ensure that children 13 years of age or younger are seated next to an adult or older child traveling with them. At the behest of Southwest Airlines, lawmakers allowed discretion to exempt airlines such as those that don’t offer assigned seating but do provide adjacent seating for families through other means.

The bill would test programs to handle the hazards of drone flights near airports and other critical infrastructure and to research traffic management for drone flights similar to what the FAA does for manned aircraft. One provision would require drone manufacturers to inform consumers of rules and safety guidelines for their use, while another would begin interagency discussions to let drones assist in firefighting operations.

Another provision would impose a $20,000 fine for anyone who “knowingly or recklessly” flies a drone near emergency responders. Authorities recorded 20 incidents in which drones flew too close to wildfires last year, with more than half hindering firefighting efforts. It has happened again at least nine times so far this year.