The long awaited COVID-19 relief bill has finally arrived from Congress. Weighing in at an impressive 5,593 pages, it contains at least some of the assistance the aviation industry has been asking for since the summer.
First and foremost among these is continuation of the Payroll Support Program started under the CARES Act. Section 402 of the new law allocates $15 billion for airlines and $1 billion for aviation contractors. The act instructs the Secretary of the Treasury to offer the payroll support on the same terms as it was proved under the CARES Act. The Secretary of the Treasury has five days from enactment to publish streamlined procedures for the program and must start making initial payments to carriers within ten days.
In order to receive the payments, a carrier must certify that it will not furlough any employees until March 31, 2021. In addition, the relief bill has provisions requiring the carrier to call back to work certain previously furloughed employee and provide some back pay. Any carrier taking the funds is prohibited from making dividend payments and buying back their stock until March 31, 2022. Finally, the minimum air service guarantees from the CARES Act are extended through March 31, 2022 for participating carriers.
Airports also received some much-needed support. The airport and airway trust fund and the grant-in-aid programs both received billions of dollars in new spending authority.
Finally, no large omnibus bill would be complete without numerous directives from Congress. The new law contains a 140-page section titled “Aircraft Certification, Safety, And Accountability.” Among other things, it requires the FAA Administrator to initiate a rulemaking within 30 days to ensure that manufacturers have a safety management system that complies with ICAO Annex 19 standards. The rulemaking must be finished within two years. The law also requires the FAA to set up several expert panels to review FAA’s handling of certification issues and act on any recommendations. In addition, the law expands requirements for manufacturers to disclose newly discovered safety critical information and establishes new civil penalties and grounds for certificate revocations.
The bill also seeks to slow the FAA/manufacturer revolving door. It places additional restrictions on industry’s ability to hire government employees who had oversight authority and also limits persons newly hired by the FAA from overseeing their previous employer. Similarly, the law contains provisions providing additional whistleblower protections for employees of certificate holders as well as their contractors, subcontractors and suppliers.
Finally, Congress did not forget the unmanned aircraft industry. The law requires the Secretary of Commerce to conduct a detailed study regarding delivery services conducted by UAS and file a report within 6 months. The report is must contain a comprehensive plan to promote the development and adoption of unmanned delivery services, as well as recommend policies that States can adopt to encourage UAS delivery services.
While the new COVID-19 relief bill is not exactly what the industry has been asking for, it looks like it is at least enough to provide a merrier Christmas, and a brighter start for the New Year.