Senate passes FAA reauthorization without TSA biometrics amendment

A  plane flies past the Washington Monument in Washington

A plane flies past the Washington Monument in Washington Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

A group of bipartisan senators hoped to use the must-pass measure to pause rollouts of the Transportation Security Administration’s facial recognition technology at new airports.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation on Thursday reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. The final measure did not include a bipartisan amendment seeking to pause the deployment of facial recognition technology at U.S. airports. 

The Transportation Security Administration has implemented facial biometrics at more than 80 airports to compare real-time photos of travelers against their government identifications, but the enhanced screening initiative has led to privacy and civil liberties concerns from some advocates and lawmakers. TSA plans to deploy the technology to more than 400 airports over the coming years. 

Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., John Kennedy, R-La., and Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., proposed an amendment to the FAA reauthorization measure on May 2 that would have paused TSA’s deployment of facial recognition technology at additional airports until Congress had a chance to review the program. 

The trio all voted for the FAA bill, despite the absence of their amendment. The only opposition in the 88-4 vote came from Virginia and Maryland senators who objected to plans to increase the number of daily roundtrip flights out of Reagan National Airport.

Their amendemnt was submitted the same day that 14 bipartisan lawmakers — including Merkley, Kennedy and Marshall — sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., calling for the chamber to use the FAA package to “provide needed oversight of TSA’s facial recognition program.”

TSA officials told Nextgov/FCW in an April interview that they have made the facial recognition screenings optional for travelers — a policy that they noted was enshrined in March guidance released by the Office of Management and Budget on agencies’ uses of facial biometrics. 

Lawmakers were seeking to attach a number of measures to the must-pass FAA reauthorization bill, but Schumer did not hold a vote on any amendments.

The final reauthorization bill, which appropriated $105 billion to the FAA for fiscal years 2024 through 2028, included several modernization initiatives and security-focused provisions designed to enhance aviation safety. 

The legislation allocated $17.8 billion toward updating critical FAA technologies, as well as $1.59 billion for the research, engineering and development of innovative aerospace technology. 

Additional measures would enhance FAA’s cybersecurity requirements and mandate research on “how to best introduce emerging aviation technologies into the airspace, including electric propulsion and hypersonic aircraft.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation — said in a statement that the bill “will modernize and transform our country’s aviation system.”

“America’s aviation sector is the most innovative in the world, and this bill takes it to the next level by integrating the technologies of the future into our nation’s aerospace system,” he added.

In addition to passing the FAA bill, the Senate also passed a one-week extension of FAA's current authorization to give the House time to consider the reauthorization legislation.