Weekly Column

Oct 09 2018

Safer Skies

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When Orville Wright spoke of his inspiration in taking to the skies, he noted that it was a dream that we as a people had always longed for. He said, “The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors, who in their grueling travels across trackless lands… looked enviously at the birds soaring freely through.”

Today, air travel is important to our world. Our ability to visit our families, reconnect with old friends, or carry out work responsibilities directly depends on the safety and reliability of our aviation infrastructure across the country. 

Last year, the Department of Transportation reported that a record 965 million passengers flew on domestic or foreign airlines. The staggering number of travelers highlights the importance of air travel to our economy and to our everyday lives. 

Our rural communities in the Good Life rely on local and regional airports to connect with the rest of the world. Each day, these facilities energize our economy by moving passengers and commodities into and out of Nebraska. Our aviation infrastructure is vital to the growth of our economy and, as demand has surged, their safety and reliability is more important now than ever before.

Every few years, Congress has the opportunity to pass legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The last FAA reauthorization was in 2012, and this is the first time in over 35 years that Congress has passed a five-year FAA reauthorization. President Trump recently signed this legislation into law. Leading up to the bill, I heard directly from local airport administrators, manufacturers, airlines, and passengers. 

Working alongside Nebraskans, I secured provisions in the FAA Reauthorization Act that will benefit several of our airports and ensure our communities stay connected.

Several of Nebraska’s small, regional airports rely on the Essential Air Service (EAS) program to support their services. I have long worked to maintain and strengthen this program. The FAA bill reauthorizes the EAS program and will increase authorized funding from $155 million in fiscal year (FY) 2018 to $172 million in FY 2023. The EAS Program provides incentives to air carriers who choose to provide services to rural areas. In the past, many of Nebraska’s rural communities took a hit when major airlines prioritized directing flight routes to major cities.

Airports in Alliance, Chadron, Grand Island, Kearney, McCook, North Platte, and Scottsbluff will reap the benefits of a strengthened EAS program. With the certainty that is delivered through this bill, the airports in these communities can now invest in long-term improvements to provide a safer and more reliable experience for future travelers. 

For example, the Columbus Municipal Airport will now have the ability to utilize the resources it needs to build a snow removal equipment storage facility with Airport Improvement Program funding. The Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island will be able to fully participate in the Contract Tower program, instead of matching the 20 percent cost-share requirement, saving money in the process. This program supports air traffic control services at Grand Island by allowing the FAA to contract out operations of the airport control towers. Additionally, the Central Nebraska Regional Airport will be able to improve its contract tower with funding from the Small Airport Fund.

I was also proud to support a crucial provision, the Small Airport Regulation Relief Act, which will ensure airports like the Western Nebraska Regional Airport in Scottsbluff will receive funding despite a downturn in service. On the national level, I fought for measures that will reauthorize the Transportation Security Administration’s surface transportation security programs, as well as a reauthorization of the National Transportation Safety Board.

These wins in the FAA Reauthorization Act will provide better access to air service, and most importantly, Nebraskans will be safer when they fly. Though this is a significant victory for Nebraska’s travelers, our economy, and the aviation community as a whole- our work isn’t done. I’ll work with our airports to see these improvements through, and I’ll continue to use my role as a member on the Senate Commerce Committee to ensure our families travel safely.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.