By Sen. John Thune
This won’t come as any surprise to most South Dakotans, but flying to and from rural America can be a challenging and oftentimes frustrating experience. Even on the best flying days, travelers often face fewer options at smaller airports. Add the seasonal threats of inclement weather to the mix, and all bets are off, because with many flights from South Dakota connecting through major hubs in other parts of the region, one stray storm can have a ripple effect that leads to missed or canceled flights on future legs of a trip.
Legislation I recently introduced, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2016, addresses some of the issues that disproportionately affect rural air travelers. This bipartisan legislation, which would reauthorize the FAA through the next fiscal year, takes on the important task of enhancing consumer protections, investing in our airport infrastructure across South Dakota, and makes needed reforms to advance priorities of the general aviation community.
In an increasingly interconnected world, business, commercial, and general aviation play an important role in economic development – particularly in South Dakota where wide open spaces make transportation options critical. This legislation reauthorizes the Airport Improvement Program, which provides necessary funding to airports in communities large and small across the state, and it increases funding for the Small Community Air Service Development Program, which helps airports attract commercial service.
Additionally, a number of general aviation priorities are reflected in this bill. Specifically, an important safety provision would require small towers, not currently regulated by the FAA, to be properly marked so pilots who operate at low-altitude, like agriculture-applicators, can easily spot and avoid them. The bill also adopts the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2, which makes several reforms to the Third Class Medical Certificate process to reduce regulatory burdens for recreational pilots, while still maintaining safety.
My legislation would advance a number of provisions aimed at protecting airline passengers, ensuring they are treated fairly. For example, airlines would be required to provide consumers with information about seat availability at the time of booking, which would help families that prefer to sit together during a flight pick an option that best satisfies their needs. This bill would also require airlines to return baggage fees when items are lost or delayed, create a standard method for airlines to disclose common fees, and take steps to help improve the travel experience for passengers with disabilities, who often face unique and difficult challenges during air travel.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, a committee I’ve chaired since the beginning of last year, will soon consider this reauthorization bill, and I’m hopeful the full Senate will pass it shortly thereafter. These important reforms are within reach, and I’m proud that we were able to build such a broad coalition of support for this bill. It’s one of many pieces of legislation our committee has worked hard to advance this Congress, and it won’t be the last.
Note: Click here for more information about the FAA Reauthorization Act and how it would benefit South Dakota.