After years of controversy and more than 20 extensions of the current law, Congress is poised to pass a 4-year reauthorization of programs at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The bill, which could come up for a vote as early as this week, would provide up to $16 billion a year for a wide range of airline-related activities.
Although FAA isn't a science powerhouse—it spends much of its money running airports and building air traffic control systems—the final bill released by a House of Representatives-Senate conference committee on 31 January does include a number of research-related programs.
Overall, the bill authorizes $168 million per year for FAA's research, engineering, and development programs (the actual amount will be determined by an annual spending bill for the agency). Although much of the money is expected to go to the agency's efforts to develop a "next generation" air traffic control system, the bill also calls for studies of lighter aircraft materials, new fuels, and other issues. They include:
- Air quality in aircraft cabins. FAA must "determine the extent to which the installation of sensors and air filters on commercial aircraft would provide a public health benefit." However, it also stipulates that "FAA's authority to monitor air quality may not impose significant costs to air carriers and may not interfere with the carrier's normal use of the aircraft."
- Aviation's environmental impacts. Lawmakers dropped a provision in the Senate's version of the bill that called for enabling the FAA administrator to green-light research aimed at reducing "gases and particulates emitted by aircraft." But the final bill does require FAA to work with NASA to develop, within a year, a research plan " to assess the potential effect of aviation on the environment" that includes "an inventory of current interagency research, future research objectives, proposed tasks, milestones, and a 5 year budgetary profile.
- Safety issues posed by aircraft wakes and volcanic eruptions. Congress wants FAA to coordinate with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to reduce risks from bumpy air and volcanic ash.
In addition, several provisions call for the agency to arrange for "independent, external" reviews of research programs, including those involving energy, the environment and safety.
The bill also protects scientists who use lasers in their work. It establishes a prison sentence of up to 5 years for anyone convicted of "knowingly aim[ing] the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft," but exempts "individuals conducting research and development."