House of Reps passes bill aimed at reducing screening times at airports

Posted at 8:01 PM, Jul 11, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House passed an aviation bill Monday aimed at boosting airport security, reducing screening lines and refunding fees to passengers whose luggage is lost or arrives late.

The bill also extends the Federal Aviation Administration's programs for 14 months at current funding levels. It was approved by a voice vote.

The Senate is expected to vote later this week. Action is required by Friday, the day the FAA's current operating authority expires, to avoid a partial shutdown of the agency.

House and Senate lawmakers had reached an agreement last week clearing the way for passage after Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House transportation committee, agreed to temporarily drop his effort to remove air traffic control operations from the FAA and place them under the control of a private, nonprofit corporation.

The plan ran into opposition from other powerful committee chairmen opposed to ceding Congress' authority over aviation matters to a corporation. Segments of the aviation industry that feared a corporate board would be dominated by large airlines also opposed the plan.

The aviation bill will provide stability to the nation's aviation system, and "includes limited but critical and time-sensitive provisions to improve aviation safety and security," Shuster said.

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. The provision responds to airport attacks in Brussels and Istanbul this year.

The bill would toughen the security clearance for airport employees who have access to secure areas, expand random employee inspections and require reviews of perimeter security. That is a response in part to the "insider threat" problem raised by the destruction last year of a Russian Metrojet airliner over Egypt. Investigators suspect a bomb was smuggled aboard.

A separate bill also passed by the House requires the TSA to update a national risk assessment of airports within 90 days, conduct more frequent risk assessments of airport access points and perimeter security, and to develop better perimeter security strategies. An investigation by The Associated Press identified 345 perimeter security breaches from the start of 2004 through mid-February of this year at 31 of the nation's busiest airports, with an average of one every 10 days starting in 2012.

The aviation bill also authorizes TSA to donate unneeded security equipment to foreign airports with direct flights to the United States. It directs TSA to establish a pilot program at three to six airports to reconfigure and install security systems that increase efficiency and reduce vulnerabilities in airport terminals.

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

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 under the bill. It also requires airlines to generally ensure that children 13 years of age or under are seated adjacent to an adult or older child traveling with them.

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 the FAA's air traffic control system for manned aircraft. One provision would require drone manufacturers to provide consumers with safety guidelines for each unit sold and information on drone laws, while another would begin the process of interagency discussions to allow for drones to assist in firefighting operations.

A separate provision would institute 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.