FAA Reauthorization Bill: What's In and What's Out

Cade Clark 2018 Fall

Reauthorized for the next five years, the FAA can tackle new programs and priorities

Well, it’s done. Congress finally passed the FAA reauthorization bill (H.R.302) and only needed one little extension of a few days to wrap it up. A five-year reauthorization hasn’t happened in 36 years—since 1982. We are on a roll!

Let’s talk about what is in, and just as importantly, what is not in the bill. But first, what exactly is a reauthorization bill, is it different than funding, and why am I making such a big deal about it?

Quite simply, congressional authorization authority is what gives a federal agency the legal authority to exist and operate. The FAA is now authorized to exist and operate for the next five years.

The reauthorization bill does not, however, give it the money to operate. In a separate funding process, Congress will provide the necessary (or what Congress deems to be appropriate) finances for the FAA to perform its authorized duties. Congress is currently working on the funding levels for the FAA; those decisions were punted until after the November elections.

So why is reauthorization a big deal? It’s not like Congress would cancel the FAA. But as we have seen in the past, the FAA hasn’t always had access to a stable operating and funding environment. The last time the agency came up for reauthorization, there were 23 short-term extensions before a four-year authorization bill was passed in 2012. Many believe that the agency was ill served by the short-term operating environment, leading to a lack of progress on several long-term initiatives.

In addition to providing the legal authority for an agency to operate, Congress uses reauthorization bills to set new priorities and initiatives for an agency. Whatever your view is on Congress, I’m sure you can appreciate that there are complex issues raised when you invite 535 legislators to participate in setting aviation policy for our country. All types of new ideas come flooding into the process; some good, some bad. Add in the legislative process, with all its nuances and strange bedfellows, and sometimes you can open a real can of worms. Reauthorization can be a gamble!

Speaking of bad gambles, let’s mention what is NOT in the bill: privatization of the US air traffic control (ATC) system. This tremendous victory is a testament to all HAI members who worked hand in hand with the rest of the general aviation (GA) to oppose this provision. HAI advocated for the industry on Capitol Hill, and our members flooded their elected officials’ in-boxes with their advice on this issue.

It was a hard-fought battle, but we won, and we couldn’t have done it without you, our members. Thank you for your involvement! However, don’t think that proponents of ATC privatization won’t try again. (Are you already dreading the columns that I will be writing five years from now, as we discuss the next reauthorization bill?) My advice is to always watch the can of worms.

This wonderful little FAA bill is 1,200 pages long. You’ll get through a lot of Diet Pepsi and brownies before you get to the last page. Trust me. However, because I did that, you don’t have to. HAI has compiled a summary of provisions important to GA and the helicopter industry. You can find both a copy of the bill and our 14-page summary of it on the advocacy page of our website: rotor.org/initiatives/advocacy. For those of you who want the Reader’s Digest version, read on.

The FAA reauthorization bill contains a number of good, even great, provisions that provide long-term stability to the FAA and advance important priorities for GA. Like many in our industry, HAI has expressed concern over the aviation workforce shortage. We recently conducted a study with the University of North Dakota that conclusively demonstrates that the helicopter industry faces a severe pilot and mechanic shortage. The FAA reauthorization bill provides important solutions to tackle this critical industry issue. Additionally, the bill addresses needed reform to FAA regulations pertaining to training programs at aviation maintenance technician schools.

H.R. 302 also provides needed clarity on the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace, allowing that sector to move forward with exciting commercial opportunities. HAI views safety as priority No. 1, and we have long advocated for the safe integration of UAS. Our perspective is unique, as our members are the ones operating in the same airspace as UAS for most of our flight profiles—and in some cases, our members are also the ones who are flying the UAS. The FAA’s ability to fully regulate all aircraft, including UAS, in the National Airspace System is paramount for safety, and H.R. 302 confirms that authority to the FAA, including standards for remotely identifying UAS.

The bill also addresses an important helicopter safety issue with crash-resistant fuel systems by adopting the recommendations of the Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group. HAI worked closely with Congress to ensure that the recommendations of the Working Group were fully captured and incorporated in the legislative text.

H.R. 302 contains a host of regulatory opportunities for the industry. The bill directs the FAA to conduct numerous studies and collaborative outreach for new initiatives. The FAA has literally been directed by Congress to reach out to aviation stakeholders—us—for input. HAI will be deeply involved in this process, but don’t forgo the opportunity that may exist for your company by participating in such research and outreach.

The FAA reauthorization bill was a lot of work for everyone. I realize that reading, or even just skimming, 1,200 pages of legislative prose may not be your definition of fun. But this can of worms brings new ideas, initiatives, solutions, and opportunities to the industry. Making sure those opportunities exist is exactly why you have a trade association representing your interests.

Thank you again for your involvement in our advocacy efforts to ensure this reauthorization bill advances the helicopter industry. Congress incorporated your voice and positions in H.R. 302. Keep up the active participation, as the industry and the FAA move to tackle our next challenges.

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