Rep. Larsen Optimistic About FAA Reauthorization As House, Senate Negotiate

rep. rick larsen

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).

Credit: Rod Lamkey-Pool/Getty

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, expressed optimism that Congress can pass FAA reauthorization legislation in the near future despite differences between House and Senate versions of the bill.

A temporary extension of the FAA’s previous 5-year authorization expires on March 8, when either a new reauthorization or another extension will be needed to prevent a partial shutdown of the agency. “There are some differences that are true differences,” Larsen said when answering questions following a Feb. 14 address to the International Aviation Club of Washington, DC. “There are some policy differences. But in our conversations [with senators] we agree there aren't many differences and we'll just work through that.”

The House passed a 5-year reauthorization bill in July 2023 by a 282-vote margin, a rare tally in a Congress deeply divided along partisan lines. The Senate is now considering its version of FAA reauthorization after the chamber’s Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee cleared a 5-year bill last week.

Among the key differences between the bills cited by Larsen are their approaches to Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) slots and the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots.

The Senate bill adds five beyond-perimeter slot pairs at DCA, creating conflict with the House, which rejected additional DCA slots after a contentious debate. Currently, 40 daily departures from DCA (out of more than 800) are to destinations beyond the 1,250-mi. perimeter governing most of the airport’s flights—and any additions have to approved by Congress.

The Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, which runs DCA and Washington Dulles International Airport, opposes additional DCA slots, warning of “congestion, delays and stress” at an already crowded airport, a view that persuaded lawmakers in the House.

A provision in the House bill to lift the mandatory retirement age of airline pilots to 67 for domestic flights, part of an effort to ease the pilot shortage, is also a source of debate, Larsen said. The Senate bill keeps the pilot retirement age at 65.

In order to reauthorize the FAA, both the House and Senate will have to pass identical legislation to be signed into law by President Joe Biden. With the March 8 deadline approaching, the Senate could amend its bill before passage so it has enough support in the House for an identical bill to then quickly clear that chamber.

Relevant House and Senate staff “have already met,” Larsen said. “We're going to start creating some side-by-sides of [the House bill and] the Senate bill so they understand what's in our bill. … We did a very strong bill in the House.”

Larsen said the wide bipartisan support for the House bill indicates FAA reauthorization will not be too politically contentious, though he conceded legislation may not pass before the deadline, necessitating another extension. “March 8 is our current deadline,” Larsen said. “If it doesn't happen, there are plenty of opportunities to get the deadline extended. No one's worried about that.”

He added a potential lapse in FAA’s authorization is “not a conversation we're having. We're having a conversation about the content and how we get a bill through the respective chambers.”

Proponents of both bills highlight a host of safety provisions, something Larsen said is even more important in the aftermath of the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 door-plug accident, which he called a “stark reminder that we have to remain vigilant to address the safety issues in the aviation ecosystem.”

Larsen said he supported the “FAA’s decisive response,” including “an overarching audit of the safety practices on the Boeing 737 MAX production lines and those of their suppliers and to keep the MAX at current production rates until the quality control issues are resolved.”

Larsen noted that a large number of Boeing factory workers live in the district he represents. “I know a lot of these employees, women and men. I represent a lot of them and I hear directly from them.” While praising the skill of Boeing’s assembly-line workers, he said the employees “depend on leadership and support so they can do their job.”

Larsen said he is awaiting the results of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the Alaska accident, adding that the House T&I “committee as a whole will take any steps of legislative oversight needed to ensure safety in our skies.”

Larsen said he does not think FAA reauthorization legislation will become a contentious issue in the 2024 congressional and presidential campaigns, making passage more likely. “There's plenty to argue about in the presidential election, the Senate and House elections," he said. "But this ain’t it.”

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is a Contributing Editor to the Aviation Week Network.