The House on Wednesday evening voted not to expand flights at the airport closest to the U.S. Capitol building, a fight that has featured dueling op-eds from warring airlines, each with bipartisan lawmakers in both chambers aligned with their side.
The provision, which would have expanded flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport by 14 per day, is a win for United Airlines, American Airlines and lawmakers local to the Washington, D.C. area that opposed the flights — and a loss for Delta Air Lines and its aligned Western lawmakers that had sought the expansions.
The airlines and their allies in Congress have fought for months over the issue, with Delta arguing that Reagan National is underutilized, and United countering that the airport is already among the top 10 busiest in the country and can’t handle more traffic. A recent FAA memo said the airport is prone to delays and noted that an increase of 20 daily round trip flights would increase delays by 25 percent.
Ahead of the vote, House Transportation Committee Ranking Member Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said “clearly this is an issue that evokes passion on both sides” and noted that congressional leaders from both parties let their members vote their conscience. Larsen noted that “there’s a lot of overpromising taking place about which cities are going to be served by this deal.”
Despite the lure of a larger number of more convenient flights home to their districts, the effort ultimately lost in the House, with lawmakers voting 205-229 against adding any additional flights to a major aviation policy bill under consideration.
However, Wednesday evening’s vote isn’t the final word on the matter. The bill, which would reauthorize the FAA, has yet to see action in the Senate. Ultimately lawmakers from both chambers will meet to hash out their differences before a final version can be sent to President Joe Biden, and there’s no guarantee the flights won’t be added in the Senate, or during final negotiations.
The House is poised to vote on the underlying bill on Thursday, and the measure is expected to pass. The FAA’s current authority expires on Sept. 30, giving Congress a tight deadline for action.
Democrats win on pilot training
A separate bipartisan effort by three Western New York-area lawmakers who sought to keep an existing requirement that commercial airline pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flight time also succeeded, 243-191.
That amendment would strike language in the underlying bill allowing 150 additional hours of simulator time to count toward the 1,500 hours if completed in a full-flight simulator, which had been agreed to weeks ago by the bipartisan leadership of the House Transportation Committee. Regional airlines have argued that the rule must be softened to counteract pilot workforce issues their carriers are experiencing.
But the families of those lost aboard Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo, N.Y. in 2009 and spurred the 1,500-hour rule in the first place, have opposed any changes, as have lawmakers in the area that offered the amendment. Ultimately, the status quo prevailed.
Earlier Wednesday, Langworthy said on the House floor that he was “on the ground at the crash site” and sought to preserve “the integrity” of the 1,500 hour rule “in the face of efforts to lower pilot training standards.”
But House Transportation Chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a pilot with a commercial rating, rebuffed Langworthy, saying “you can simulate anything.”
A flight over the same pilot training rule has also engulfed the Senate Commerce Committee, preventing the Senate from moving ahead with its FAA bill, S. 1939 (118).
A group of Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, oppose changing pilot training rules. But Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) have sought an amendment that would allow for alternate forms of pilot training to count toward the 1,500 hour requirement. Sinema’s support presents an obstacle, since if all Republicans on the committee join her, the amendment would have enough votes to pass, against the leadership’s wishes.
Irie Sentner contributed to this report.