Great Falls Tribune: Senators say FAA bill tightens security, benefits economy

The U.S. Senate voted to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration on a 95-3 vote Tuesday with amendments that Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines said would strengthen security for travelers and benefit Montana airports.

“This bipartisan bill will strengthen America’s national security, boost tourism and support meaningful infrastructure investments in our state’s transportation system,” Tester said. “Our airports serve as gateways to Montana’s treasured places and an important line of defense against folks who want to do us harm. This bill is a strong step toward keeping families safe and encouraging economic growth.”

Tester offered a successful amendment to authorize a study within six months of passage of the feasibility of installing full body scanners in all commercial airports. Currently, the Transportation Security Administration limits the full body scanner to urban airports. That’s left airports in Great Falls and Helena without the most up-to-date security equipment.

At a hearing last month, Tester told Transportation Secretary Jeh Johnson, “It’s critically important that we put forth the same level of security at all the nation’s airports.”

Great Falls Airport Director John Faulkner said he supports adding a body-scanner to existing walk-through metal detectors for three reasons: better security, quicker screenings and fewer invasive pat-downs for people with body implants that set off metal detectors.

Nearly 200,000 people pass through the Great Falls Airport each year.

Daines said the reauthorization bill, including some measures he helped secure or amend, “will strengthen security for travelers and protect American consumers’ best interests.”

He supported continuing the Essential Air Service subsidies that help provide air service to seven smaller Montana cities; increasing money for the Airport Improvement Program that provides money to build and maintain runways and other critical airport assets; and increase money to a grant program that helps back efforts for airports to obtain additional flights.

The Great Falls airport received a grant last year that helped recruit a direct United Airlines flight this summer between Great Falls and Chicago.

Faulkner praised both Montana senators for working with airport directors on amendments benefiting smaller airports. He also said it is important reauthorizing the FAA early in the year so that northern airports can get grant funds early in the construction season.

The bill also would help consumers by:

Requiring automatic refunds by airlines for certain fees or services that aren’t received, such as seat assignments, early boarding and baggage fees when bags are delayed.

Provide refunds of baggage fees when luggage is lost or delayed six hours after arrival of a domestic flight and 12 hours after an international arrival.

Require airline notification to families when tickets are booked if seats aren’t adjacent.

Allowing a ban on cellphone calls aboard planes in flight.

Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, said the industry already has policies in place for lost or delayed bags. She said additional regulations by Congress for bags and other services would hurt consumers.

“We continue to believe that misguided provisions in the Senate bill designed to reregulate airline pricing and services are bad for airline customers, employees, the communities we serve and our overall U.S. economy and will ultimate make it more difficult for customers to afford to fly,” she said. 

Christopher Doering and Bart Jansen with USA TODAY contributed to this story.