U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, spoke on the Senate floor on the bipartisan proposal to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration through fiscal year 2017 under consideration in the Senate. The bill was approved by the committee in March 2016. More information on the bill can be found at www.commerce.senate.gov/faa.
Mr. President, this week the Senate is taking up important aviation reforms that will support U.S. jobs, increase safety, improve drone operations, and make travel easier for airline passengers.
The bill before us today, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, will help update aviation law to reflect the rapid advances in technology we’ve seen over the last few years. For example, since the last reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration in 2012, the use of drones has increased dramatically. The FAA has sought to keep up by using the authority it already has to safely advance this burgeoning industry. But there are limits to what the FAA can do with only outdated authority to manage this rapidly advancing technology.
Passing this reform bill would help the FAA remove barriers to innovation and address unacceptable safety risks when it comes to unmanned aircraft. Just last month, the Los Angeles Times reported on an incident where a Lufthansa Airlines A380 jumbo jet approaching Los Angeles International Airport experienced a near miss with a drone that flew just 200 feet over the airliner. While fortunately in this case the two did not collide, the prospect of a jumbo jet carrying hundreds of passengers striking a drone while flying over a heavily populated area is chilling.
Our colleague from California, Senator Feinstein, noted in a statement on this incident that our FAA bill includes key reforms that will keep drones out of the path of airliners. She added, and I quote, “We must pass this bill and strengthen the law wherever we can.” I couldn’t agree more.
To keep drones out of the paths of commercial airliners, the Senate bill would implement standards so that existing safety technologies can be built into unmanned aircraft. This legislation also takes steps to require drone users to learn basic “rules of the sky” so they understand the limits of where and when unmanned aircraft may operate. This is critical as we move into an era where drones share airspace with commercial aircraft, emergency medical flights, low-altitude agricultural planes, and general aviation pilots. And our focus on safety in this legislation doesn’t stop at promoting safe use of unmanned systems.
Our legislation addresses safety issues across the aviation spectrum.
Lithium batteries – the batteries that power laptops and mobile phones – have helped grow our digital economy, but the bulk transport of these items poses serious shipping challenges. Our bill ensures swift implementation of new international safety standards for the bulk transport of these batteries.
Although the sequence of events preceding the tragic Germanwings murder-suicide would almost certainly not have happened in the U.S. due to existing rules, our bill recognizes the importance of mental health and strengthens evaluations for commercial pilots. Our legislation also improves a voluntary safety reporting program for pilots and sets a deadline for creating a commercial pilot record database to ensure air carriers have all available information about pilots’ training, testing, and employment histories when hiring. And in response to an independent recommendation completed after our experience with the 2015 Ebola virus outbreak, our bill directs federal agencies to establish aviation preparedness plans for any future outbreaks of communicable diseases. Our legislation also directs the FAA to update guidance regarding flight deck automation – such as the use of autopilot – a key factor in recent fatal accidents.
This legislation also makes existing funds available for a $400 million increase in the Airport Improvement Program to strengthen infrastructure and safety measures at airports.While our top priority is safety, the Senate’s aviation bill also makes consumer-friendly reforms to improve air travel for passengers.
I commute weekly from my home in South Dakota to Washington, D.C., so I understand the many frustrations faced by passengers, and my colleagues and I are immensely proud of the pro-consumer provisions in this bill. Our legislation has been hailed by a consumer columnist for the Washington Post, as – and I quote – “one of the most passenger-friendly Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bills in a generation.”
Under our bill, airlines must return fees consumers have paid for baggage if items are lost or delayed. We also require airlines to automatically return fees for services purchased but not delivered so travelers don’t have to go through the hassle of trying to reclaim their money from an airline. And for customers frustrated by lengthy legal jargon that can make it difficult to understand fees, our bill creates a new and easy-to-read uniform standard for disclosing baggage, ticket change, seat selection, and other fees. Our proposal also helps families with children find flights where they can sit together without additional costs by requiring airlines to tell purchasers about available seat locations at the time of booking.
Mr. President, as a resident of a rural state, the needs of the general aviation community were a priority of mine when we wrote this bill. I am pleased that we were able to build a consensus for including reforms from the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 offered by many of my colleagues and led by Senators Inhofe and Manchin. These provisions include reforms to the Third Class Medical Certificate required for non-commercial pilots and new protections for pilots in their interactions with the FAA. To reduce the risk of aircraft accidents for low-altitude flyers, like agricultural applicators, our bill includes requirements for highly visible physical markings on small towers posing hazards.
This bill would also strengthen the aviation industry by improving the FAA’s process for certifying aircraft designs and modifications, and ensuring that these certifications benefit manufacturers competing in global markets. This would help manufacturers move U.S. aerospace products to market faster without compromising safety standards.
Mr. President, while I expect and encourage robust debate on this bill, I hope that the debate will go forward with the same bipartisan and constructive spirit that Sen. Nelson and I witnessed during consideration of this bill at the Commerce Committee. At the committee mark-up, we voted to include dozens of amendments reflecting ideas from both sides of the aisle. On final passage, we approved this bill by voice vote without a single committee member recording an objection.
Part of reaching this consensus was an agreement Senator Nelson and I reached to not include certain proposals that divided our colleagues —and we worked hard to find middle ground on a number of issues to enable us to move this bill forward. Air Traffic Control reform and a Passenger Facility Charge increase were excluded from the package because, at present, these proposals lack sufficient support and their inclusion could have jeopardized the bill. Senator Nelson and I also agreed to limit the length of this bill to 18 months. This allows us to enact important reforms now while providing an opportunity to revisit other issues reasonably soon.
Mr. President, as we debate this bill, we should remember the urgent need for safety improvements and good government reforms to improve our aviation industry. There are numerous reforms in this bill that are simply too important to delay and I look forward to a productive debate.
Finally, I took to the floor earlier to discuss the recent horrific attacks perpetrated by ISIS and the implications for security and aviation policy.In addition to this FAA bill, the Commerce Committee has approved two bipartisan aviation security bills:
- S. 2361, the Airport Security Enhancement and Oversight Act, that Sen. Nelson and I introduced along with the bipartisan leadership of the Homeland Security Committee as cosponsors, and
- H.R. 2843, the TSA PreCheck Expansion Act offered by Rep. John Katko.
Historically, the Senate has passed aviation security enhancements separate from a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. While I still prefer this separate approach, I will pursue every option to enact these improvements and will vigorously oppose any effort to water down the security enhancements in these bills. I know we all share the goal of keeping aviation secure, and I will listen to the views of my colleagues on whether we pursue enactment of these bipartisan aviation security proposals through this reauthorization or through separate legislation.
Mr. President, I want to thank my partner on the Commerce Committee, Ranking Member Bill Nelson, as well as Senators Kelly Ayotte and Maria Cantwell who lead our aviation subcommittee, for their work on the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. I look forward to the debate on this bill, and I urge my colleagues to pass this legislation.