Despite Rep. Shuster’s best efforts to defend it, the proposed 2016 FAA Reauthorization package (the AIRR Act) hasn’t made it out of the House of Representatives. Apparently tabled for now, the AIRR Act’s more contentious provisions – such as privatizing the air traffic control operations – have not been able to garner enough support in the House.
A bipartisan Senate bill designed to replace it, introduced Wednesday by Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), avoids the issue of privatization or that of raising ticket fees for airport construction projects and introduces some new regulation for drones.
In addition to measures designed to protect airline passengers from crowding, lost luggage, and endless delays, the bill proposed would address regulations for both recreational and commercial drones. An addition to the drone registration program would require drone operators to pass an online test before receiving a registration allowing them to fly: this idea was recommended by the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) several months ago. The provision is designed to make sure that operators understand the basic “know before you fly” rules concerning altitude restrictions and mandatory distance from airports.
The proposals for commercial drones are more significant; while the bill does not address the AIRR Act’s proposed “micro drone” classification – rejected by the FAA, who formed another task force to come up with a substitute – it does provide changes that the drone industry has been clamoring for: it would allow commercial drones to fly beyond line of sight and at night, and provide a clear federal framework of regulations.
Flight beyond line of sight is something that commercial giants like Amazon and Google have been actively lobbying for, as the provision could make drone delivery and other commercial applications possible on a large scale. In addition, the new bill would take on the problem of state and local drone laws, a growing threat to commercial drone business. The bill would require local governments to defer to federal regulations governing testing, registration, operation, and manufacture of drones.
Legislators must act soon: current FAA authorization expires on March 31. A short-term extension is expected while a longer-term solution is negotiated. While this Senate bill may have been toned down enough to pass, it is still only a stop-gap measure: if it were passed, the law would only remain in effect until September 2017. At some point, lawmakers will be forced to address the growing problems within the FAA.
A Senate committee vote on the bill is scheduled for March 16.