Nebraska airports connect our families, businesses, and communities to our country and the world. Year round, in all kinds of weather, these facilities serve the traveling public and advance commerce by moving people, products, and freight into and out of our state safely and reliably.
But even as demand has increased, our small community airports have been forced to cut back their services due to misguided national policies that favor major large cities outside of Nebraska.
These cuts have a major impact on airports in rural Nebraska and the Panhandle. With fewer inbound and outbound flights, these smaller airports have lost critical funds from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Airport Improvement Program (AIP). These funds help local airports to maintain basic operations, including safety and security, maintaining runways, and building new facilities.
Nebraska’s rural and small community airports connect our state to the rest of the nation, but these cuts have weighed heavily on the men and women who keep them running. This was reinforced at a field hearing I chaired in Scottsbluff in May. Don Overman, one of our witnesses and the chairman of Scottsbluff’s Western Nebraska Regional Airport Authority Board, noted how rural airports have been vastly impacted by changes on airline pilot hours that took place in 2013, leading to a downturn in passenger traffic and a loss in AIP funds. Because of the dedication of Mr. Overman and leaders in Kearney and North Platte, I have been working with Congressman Adrian Smith over the last few years to solve this problem and restore these funds.
And solve it we did. This month, Congress passed legislation to authorize the FAA through September 2017. Included in the final bill were important provisions from the Small Airport Regulation Relief Act. Congressman Smith introduced this bill in the House and I cosponsored it in the Senate. The legislation ensures small airports can continue receiving AIP funds despite downturns in air service. With funding restored beginning in 2017, airports like Scottsbluff’s Western Nebraska Regional Airport, and those in Kearney and North Platte, can continue their operations. The bill also provides these airports with the certainty needed to make long-term investments in infrastructure, safety, and reliability so they can better serve travelers and businesses for years to come.
Another provision included in the final FAA bill strengthens and continues the Essential Air Service Program (EAS). This program provides incentives to air carriers that offer service to rural areas. Without this funding, our local communities would have witnessed a dramatic drop in services with airlines shifting routes to major cities. Since our provision was included in the final FAA bill, small airports in Alliance, Chadron, Grand Island, McCook, North Platte, and Scottsbluff will be able to maintain their operations and continue attracting businesses.
The aviation bill is a victory for Nebraska’s rural and small community airports, and I am pleased to report President Obama signed it into law this month. While I understand our aviation community would have preferred a long-term FAA bill, I plan to work closely with public and private sector stakeholders in Nebraska to accomplish this critical goal next year.
Commercial air service is a highway for commerce and travel. Thanks to the passage of the FAA bill, we can all take comfort knowing there are more ways to connect our state and welcome visitors to the Good Life.
Sen. Deb Fischer is in her first term as Nebraska’s senior senator.