Senate passes aviation bill with $1.7B in disaster aid

Part of the Starlite Motel is washed away in the aftermath of flooding from Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate has passed legislation that would provide $1.7 billion to help residents of the Carolinas and elsewhere recover from recent natural disasters.

Lawmakers described the aid for those affected by Hurricane Florence as a down payment and said billions of additional dollars probably will be needed.

The disaster aid is part of a bill that authorizes about $90 billion for federal aviation programs over the next five years. Airport managers panned the money for airport improvements as keeping airports “stuck in neutral” when it comes to upgrading outdated terminals and tarmacs.

Still, lawmakers addressed some of the flying public’s top concerns. The bill requires the Federal Aviation Administration to set a minimum size for airplane seats and legroom to ensure safety, a nod to the growing number of complaints about shrinking seats. The legislation bars passengers from being kicked off overbooked planes, a response to airport officers dragging a 69-year-old man off a United Express plane last year.

“I think we can all agree that once you’ve boarded a plane, you shouldn’t be kicked off until you arrive at your destination,” said Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

Lawmakers also included provisions to reduce the amount of time that passengers spend going through security checks. They boost the number of bomb-sniffing dogs trained in the U.S. and make it easier for travelers to sign up for expedited security screenings.

“What we are seeing is that our airports move much more rapidly when these canines are present,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

The vote on the bill was 93-6. It now goes to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.

Airline companies beat back efforts from lawmakers to crack down on fees, which they increasingly rely on to boost profits. Lawmakers also nixed an effort to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., voted against the bill because it did not include his legislation directing the FAA to set standards on baggage fees and other fees. His bill said the agency should make sure the fees are “reasonable” and proportional to the costs of providing the service.

“Congress has missed an historic, once in a generation opportunity to stop gargantuan airlines from gouging Americans with exorbitant fees every time they fly,” Markey said.

Lawmakers also added to the legislation a bill giving the FBI and Homeland Security officials the authority to track and take down drones deemed a “credible threat” to people or federal facilities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen lobbied for the change. Critics assert that the provision gives the government unchecked power to decide when drones are a threat.

The bill also makes changes to Federal Emergency Management Agency programs that would allow more disaster aid to be used on projects that reduce the damage from future storms, such as rebuilding levees and buying out landowners in flood plains.

Lawmakers said the five-year aviation extension is the longest that Congress has approved since the 1980s and should help airports better plan for the future.

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Associated Press writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.

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