Improving Rural Air Service
July 19, 2016
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  • At a recent Nebraska Breakfast in Washington, D.C., I commented on Nebraskans’ frustration over the frequency of flight cancellations at local airports. Looking across the room, I saw many heads nod enthusiastically in agreement. Commercial air service is crucial to rural communities, but federal regulations have threatened small airports in Nebraska and around the country.

    During the week of July 11, the House and Senate passed legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through September 2017. Included in this bill are a number of provisions to improve rural air service.

    My Small Airport Regulation Relief Act provision was included in the final bill to ensure rural airports get the relief they need from pilot regulations, which have led to a shortage of pilots and subsequent flight cancellations. The rising number of cancelled flights has prevented some Nebraska airports, such as Scottsbluff, North Platte, and Kearney, from meeting the requirements to receive funding for infrastructure and safety projects, even though they qualified in the past.

    Under my provision, these airports will be able to use enplanement numbers from 2012 – before the regulations took effect – to qualify for needed funding while we work on a lasting solution to the pilot shortage. I also appreciate Senator Deb Fischer’s leadership in the Senate on this effort and others to support small airports.

    The FAA bill establishes a working group on improving air service to rural communities. Specifically, the working group is tasked with determining whether current federal funding for small airports is sufficient and effective, as well as examining strategies to train and retain pilots in rural areas. The working group is required to submit its findings within one year to allow recommendations to be incorporated into a longer-term FAA bill.

    Provisions from the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2, of which I am a cosponsor, are included as well to reduce the red tape which many private pilots face when obtaining and maintaining certifications.

    Though rural airports are currently feeling the worst impacts from the pilot shortage, it will likely become an issue for urban and even international airports in the coming years considering regional airlines serve as feeders for larger airlines. I am glad the House and Senate recognize the seriousness of this situation and have made addressing the shortage a priority of this bill.

    Many other provisions related to passenger safety are also included, such as developing more effective and efficient passenger screening systems and enhancing security coordination between the U.S. and other countries. We live in a dangerous world, and it is crucial to continue updating security procedures while ensuring our aviation system can effectively serve travelers.

    As a 14-month extension, this bill is more than a stopgap. It provides time to make substantive, necessary reforms to FAA programs.

    Individuals and businesses depend on quality air service to connect them with the rest of the world. By coming together to pass this bipartisan FAA extension, Congress has provided the certainty needed to make long-term reforms and improvements to our aviation system. Meanwhile, Nebraska airports will receive the regulatory relief they need to maintain operations and provide reliable rural flights.