U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, spoke on the floor today on legislation to reauthorize the FAA.
The bill, which passed the Commerce Committee last month, contains a number of pro-consumer and drone safety measures. The lawmaker also said today he intends to offer amendments to the bill that would bolster security at airports and tighten screening for airport employees.
Below is the text of Nelson’s floor remarks.
Sen. Nelson: Mr. President, I think the Chairman, Senator Thune, has pointed out that what we have tried to exhibit, is the way the Senate is supposed to work in a bipartisan way to forge consensus in order to be able to govern. And the subject matter, the FAA aviation, is one that we shouldn't dillydally around. And indeed some of the very serious consequences that are facing the National Aviation System, we take them head-on.
And I want the chairman to know how much I appreciate the spirit with which we have worked not only on this issue, but the many issues in the Commerce Committee. And I think we're seeing the proof in the pudding, and I think we will see an amendatory process that runs fairly smooth as a result of the example and the spirit that we have tried to set with regard to this legislation.
It's a comprehensive bill. It's been months in the making, and in working together in the fashion that I indicated, the bill reflects the broad agreement on aviation. We at the same time have refrained from the controversial proposals, such as the plan in the House bill that's come out of the House committee has not gone to the floor, that being a plan to privatize air traffic control that has stopped the House FAA bill dead in its tracks.
We have a good bill in front of us here in the Senate, and in this robust process, we'll consider many amendments and improvements as we continue on down the legislative process. There is no basis, Mr. President, for the chatter coming from some in the House that hearts and minds down here are going to change on air traffic control privatization.
Air traffic control privatization is just not going to happen. I've made myself very, very clear: such a privatization scheme would seriously impact the overall success of our aviation system. It would dismantle the long-standing partnership between the FAA and the Department of Defense, and needlessly disrupt the progress FAA is making in its modernization efforts.
And let me underscore that. The Defense Department operates in about 20 percent of our airspace. They cannot afford to have a private company handling that airspace.
And of course this privatization could also lead to increased costs for the traveling public and users of the National Airspace System. The measured approach that we're taking in this bill, we think is the better path, and we are not alone in this view.
This bipartisan bill enjoys the support of a huge number of organizations. Now, nothing is perfect. And so it was my hope that we could find a way to help our busiest airports by increasing the resources they need to improve and maintain vital facilities. We couldn't reach that agreement. And that is one reason why the term of this bill is somewhat limited through fiscal year 2017, so that we have an additional opportunity to revisit this and other issues in the not-too-distant future.
But it is a consensus bill, and it contains, as the chairman has just mentioned, many new consumer protections for airline passengers, critical improvements in drone safety, and reforms to boost US aircraft manufacturing and exports. And it will do all of this without disrupting the safest and most efficient air transportation system in the world.
Let me highlight some of these consumer protections.
How irritating is it to passengers that they don't know about this and that fee, this and that charge; consumers who at the end of the day feel nickeled and dimed. They deserve to know, and they need some relief. Well, this bill makes progress on that.
Last summer, this senator released a report that found that airlines failed to adequately disclose the extra fees and the add-on costs charged to the flying public. In many cases, passengers didn't know that they could get a seat without having to request a special seat with a fee. In many cases, passengers didn't know about the fees that they had to pay for airline baggage. Well, that report had a number of comprehensive recommendations, and this legislation builds on that report to protect the flying public.
Many, many things in the bill. But for example, it requires fee refunds for lost or delayed baggage. It requires new standardized disclosure of fees for consumers. It requires increased protections for disabled passengers.
As the chairman mentioned, drone safety is a very important bill. Remember Captain Sully Sullenberger, who became a national hero when upon takeoff and ascending out of LaGuardia, encountered a flock of seagulls which were sucked into his jet engines?
Now, that's flesh and blood and feathers and webbed feet. You can imagine what would happen if a drone on assent or on descent of a passenger airliner sucks in the plastic and metal of a drone. There are lives at risk and there might not be a Hudson River that Captain Sullenberger could belly it in in the Hudson River and save all the lives of his passengers.
Last year alone, the FAA recorded over a thousand drone sightings near airports and aircraft. Well, that's unacceptable, and we must do everything that we can to protect the flying public from these dangers posed by drones.
And so this bill creates a pilot program to test various technologies to keep drones away from airports and it requires the FAA to work with NASA to test and develop a drone traffic management system.
We have seen the technology already available that can suddenly capture a drone as it goes into a prohibited area and land that drone or take over that drone and take it someplace else. The identification of drones that go in and out of prohibited areas is also important.
And we're going to have to face this because sooner or later it won't be what happened at the Miami international airport with a drone within hundreds of feet of an inbound American Airlines airliner into Miami International. So we want to avoid that catastrophic outcome.
This legislation also provides reforms in the FAA certification process that will boost U.S. manufacturing and exports and most importantly create really good jobs for hardworking Americans.
Now, those are just some of the key features in the bill when it comes to reauthorizing the FAA and that's what brings here today with the bill on the floor.
We know that we're in a new context of world terrorism, having just been reminded in Brussels. The dual attacks on a Brussels metro station and the airport are a grim reminder of both aviation and surface transportation networks remain attractive targets for terrorists.
And it's now almost 15 years after September the 11th. The terrorists are still out there seeking these vulnerabilities.
In November of last year, we saw the ability to penetrate airport perimeter security in Egypt, caused an employee to get an explosive device on a Russian passenger jet, and that killed 224 civilians.
And so we have amendments to address these. We think these amendments are noncontroversial. We think they are bipartisan. And they certainly are timely.
And so as our debate unfolds over the next few days, aviation security will be an important factor in the discussion. The chairman and I have talked at length and we have some of the ideas that we are going to present for consideration on security.
One such proposal as the chairman has mentioned in his opening remarks. We already passed it in the Commerce Committee. It's right there. The Airport Security Enhancement and Oversight Act. And that legislation, bipartisan, sponsored by a number of us on the committee would improve background checks for airport workers and increased employee screenings, and obviously a reminder of the Russian jetliner this is important, a reminder of the gunrunning scheme in the Atlanta airport over 100 guns over a three-month period put on airliners transporting them from the Atlanta airport to New York.
So it's an area that requires attention, so I look forward to collaborating with our colleagues as we move these important issues