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Rural Air Service, Contract Towers Among Issues Heard During Senate Hearing

The Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation convened a hearing on April 6th that focused on federal efforts to improve access and safety, including the Federal Contract Tower (FCT) program, the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, and the Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP) as well as initiatives that could bolster rural air service and the general aviation (GA) community.

The subcommittee heard testimony from representatives of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the U.S. Contract Tower Association, and the mayor of Pierre, South Dakota.

Several subcommittee members voiced their strong support for the EAS program and the critical impact the program has on many rural economies. Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) pointed out that the overall economic impact of reliable air service in small communities is roughly $121 billion, and it supports over 1.1 million jobs. Chairman John Thune (R-SD) said, “Access to the national air transportation system is a serious concern for those who live or work long distances from even the smallest airport.”

President Trump’s FY2018 budget blueprint proposed eliminating funding for the EAS program. Today, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) led 20 of his Senate colleagues in a bipartisan letter calling for robust funding for EAS. The letter was sent to Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI).

“The USDOT’s Essential Air Service program connects over 170 small communities in the United States to the National Air Transportation System, providing them an essential connection point for travel throughout the country,” wrote the Senators. “Without this program, these communities would lose air service as airlines would move to only serve more profitable markets. That would leave some communities hundreds of miles away from the nearest large- or medium-hub airport.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) asked the panel for their input on Air Traffic Control (ATC) privatization. Mark Baker of AOPA said he saw no reason to change the system, and that he had not heard complaints from pilots. Baker said that he would be opposed to general aviation user fees as a way to pay for the proposed entity. Spencer Dickerson of the Contract Tower Association and the American Association of Airport Executives voiced concern over equal representation on the governing board, but made clear that AAAE has not taken a position on ATC privatization.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) asked Baker for his perspective on how to improve the effectiveness of the Non-Primary Entitlement (NPE) program to better serve GA airports. Baker explained that when NPE funds are carried over or expire, they are converted to discretionary funds that go back to the FAA. He stated that of the $442 million in total NPE funds last year, 2016, $329 million dollars were carried over to the discretionary fund.

Since the NPE is calculated first out of the general aviation apportionment, the state apportionment has dropped each year. NASAO has been working on a proposal that would return carryover and expired NPE funds back to state apportionment. NASAO is actively engaged in discussions with AOPA and other organizations as well as staff on the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Transportation Committee to solve this problem.

Mayor Laurie Gill told the subcommittee about the number of problems that were triggered in Pierre the year the 1,500 hour rule took effect. Mayor Gill said the number of enplanements dropped below 10,000 the following year, resulting in 85% reduction in annual apportionment from AIP for eligible airfield infrastructure projects.

“A drop in annual apportionments from $1 million to $150,000 is extreme,” said Mayor Gill. She recommended that legislation be crafted to establish a more gradual reduction, or a delay in reduction, or some other meaningful response to the fact that many small community airports have suffered enplanement reductions due to pilot supply issues following implementation of the 1,500 hour rule.

Dr. Guy M. Smith of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University provided testimony on the findings of the Pilot Source Study 2015 which aimed to determine the effect of PL 111-216 and the FOQ Rule on pilot hiring and pilot training in US regional airlines. Dr. Smith said the study concluded that flight hours is not a reliable predictor of performance by pilots. Mayor Gill said she believed that the FAA should “consider providing additional hours of credit for academic and military training and consider broadening its view of what qualifies as academic experience deserving hours of credit.”

When asked by Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) about the cost-benefit eligibility requirement criteria for the contract tower power program, Spencer Dickerson said, “Right now the FAA’s thumb is on the scale against airport safety. It’s leaning towards these broad abstract economic models, and we believe the FAA should err on the side of safety.” Dickerson thanked Sen. Inhofe for his leadership on the contract tower funding support letter that was co-signed by 35 senators.

Dickerson recommended that the committee eliminate the FAA’s annual cost-benefit analysis unless an airport’s traffic drops by at least 25 percent annually or 60 percent over three years, prohibit the FAA from adding non-site specific or indirect costs to cost-benefit analyses, and to remove the $2 million cap on AIP eligibility for tower construction. NASAO strongly supports these recommendations and has co-signed a letter to Appropriators in both chambers urging the lawmakers to fully fund the contract tower program for FY 2018 and the remainder of FY 2017. NASAO will continue to promote these priorities in our discussions on the Hill.

We will continue to monitor this process and inform NASAO members of all major developments. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact John Shea at (703) 610-0272.

Categories: News
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