The 112th Congress has received the unfortunate, albeit partially correct, reputation as a “do-nothing” body. It is true that the 112th as passed fewer pieces of legislation than any other in history. This may not be a bad thing, particularly in light of all the controversial laws passed by its predecessor. Moreover, it would have been better if laws such as the Budget Control Act had not been passed. Frankly, given the degree of partisanship on the Hill and in the country in general, it is remarkable that anything got done last year.
Already this year, Congress has taken some positive steps. One of the most notable of these is the passage of a four-year funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This action ends years of wrangling in Congress that resulted in 23 stop-gap funding bills and a two-week shutdown. But the new law does much more. It provides approximately $11 billion to modernize the FAA’s antiquated air traffic control system replacing much of the old radar-based guidance system with one using GPS. This will permit commercial airliners to operate safely with less distance between them, particularly when taking off and landing, thereby increasing the number of flights that can be in the air at any given time. The law also provides funding for other FAA modernization efforts such as the En-Route Automation Modernization that will enable air traffic controllers to utilize more sensors and greater amounts of data when managing an ever increasing number of aircraft in the air at one time.
Even more significant, the law gives the FAA a kick in the pants with respect to coming up with a plan for opening U.S. skies for the operation of unmanned aerial systems or drones. Unmanned surveillance systems are critical to securing the borders, particularly the northern border with Canada. As the military becomes more drone-centric it will require more airspace in which to test and train these systems. There are enormous opportunities for the use of drones in local policing, environmental sensing and even the movement of cargo. Advocates for the expanded domestic use of drones have been pressing the FAA to get on with developing a plan for addressing the subject and defining the requirements that operators would have to meet. For example, what kind of proximity warning/collision avoidance capability will be required on drones operating in the same airspace as manned aircraft? The new law gives the FAA nine months to publish a plan defining a path towards expanded access by 2015.
Does the passage of the FAA funding bill portend a more bipartisan spirit in Congress? In order to get the bill through the Senate, Democrats and Republicans were willing to compromise on some long-held positions regarding unionization in the transportation industry and federal funding for underutilized airports. Perhaps Congress could next turn its attention to devising an alternative to the Budget Control Act’s draconian sequestration provision that will damage our national security.
Find Archived Articles: