Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Senate Federal Aviation Administration Bill Seeks to Accelerate Small-Drone Use: Measure would permit regulators to approve exemptions on case-by-case basis

The Wall Street Journal
Updated March 9, 2016 6:40 p.m. ET

A Senate committee is scheduled to consider legislation next week seeking to accelerate use of small commercial drones across the U.S., while opening the door for flights at night and outside the sight of operators.

Such operations are now strictly prohibited. But the measure would encourage and explicitly permit regulators to approve case-by-case exemptions, as well as set ground rules for developing long-term privacy policies and establishing industry-derived safety standards covering a broad range of unmanned aircraft types.

The bipartisan bill introduced Wednesday by leaders of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation also breaks new ground by proposing to speed up approval of new model designs and safety retrofits affecting private aircraft—changes long demanded by manufacturers and pilots alike.

And for the first time, the Federal Aviation Administration would be specifically required to detail economic benefits derived by airlines and other users of the nation’s airspace from mandated installation of updated air-traffic control equipment. This issue also has been a point of contention for many years between regulators and industry officials.

But as expected, the legislative package fails to follow the lead of many House Republican leaders because it doesn’t call for putting the U.S. air-traffic control system under the control of a private, nonprofit corporation.

A House panel approved such a dramatic shift last month, but the proposal has sparked stiff opposition from Democrats, some pilot union leaders and groups claiming to represent passengers. Wednesday’s move indicates there is currently no appetite in the Senate to take up the contentious issue of transforming the legal structure of the air-traffic control network, and suggests achieving a consensus for any big shift is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

The wide-ranging Senate measure, aiming to reauthorize the FAA’s legal authority through the end of September 2017, covers other hot-button aviation topics by ordering the FAA to implement additional mental-health screening for airline pilots; proposing provisions for more-transparent airline ticket pricing; and maintaining a congressional ban against imposition of FAA restrictions on bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries going beyond minimum international standards.

Proponents of the bill hope to enact a three-month, stopgap extension to maintain FAA operations, while the House and Senate try to work out compromises needed to enact a longer reauthorization package. House leaders are still considering the length and details of a possible short-term extension.

Although the Senate measure tracks the House version in many respects, it features different passenger-protection language and leaves out a controversial labor provision dealing with the trucking industry.

Over all, the Senate committee aims to avoid a protracted floor debate by focusing on various policy and technical changes that have long been considered and are supported by industry groups and, in some cases, by regulators.

Hours before the bill was introduced, for example, the FAA proposed an overhaul of decades-old safety standards for propeller-powered general aviation planes and certain business jets—with the aim of reducing costs and accelerating installation of the latest safety equipment. Developed with the help of industry leaders over several years and mandated by Congress in 2013, the proposed regulations streamline certification procedures.

The long-awaited regulatory initiative also highlights safeguards to prevent crashes stemming from aerodynamic stalls and ice accumulation on private or corporate planes with a seating capacity of 19 or fewer passengers.

In a statement, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the panel’s Republican chairman, said the bill “benefits Americans who fly and even those who don’t” by promoting responsible drone use and proposing “economically significant aerospace manufacturing reforms.” Among other provisions, the bill funds stepped-up enforcement of drone violations.

In the same statement, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the committee, called it “a good place for both parties to come together and hopefully get something passed.”

Sen. Nelson emphasized that the measure directs the Transportation Department to review whether airlines sometimes tell certain passengers flights are delayed because of weather when the main reason may involve decisions to keep other, larger planes moving.

Instead of putting a corporate board in charge of air-traffic modernization efforts, collectively dubbed NextGen, the Senate panel proposed language requiring the FAA to be more transparent about both progress and delays in implementation.

The bill further instructs the agency to more effectively incorporate cybersecurity protections in air-traffic control enhancements, and outline contingency plans to respond to possible hacker attacks.

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