WASHINGTON, April 27, 2016 - A Senate bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration is proving to be an example of legislation that might not scream agriculture, but could still have a big impact on rural America.

The bill, S. 2658, was passed by a sweeping 95-3 Senate vote last week (only Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., voted against the bill). It would reauthorize FAA through fiscal 2017 as well as address issues important to agriculture and rural America, particularly as they relate to drones and small airports.

For small rural airports, the bill continues Essential Air Service funding, which typically subsidizes two round trips a day with aircraft usually holding 30-50 passengers. The program currently serves 115 communities in the continental United States.

The bill boosts funding for the Airport Improvement Program by $400 million – just over 10 percent – and takes the Small Community Air Service Development Funding to $10 million, a $4 million increase from previous levels.

The bill also addresses unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – also known as drones – which the ag sector sees as a key technology, especially in crop production. Aside from other drone safety issues in the bill, FAA is given the authority to approve drone use outside of strictly line-of-sight operations, which could be critical for rulemaking that would allow the use of drones in crop scouting.  Other provisions in the bill:

·         Direct the Department of Transportation to look into airline complaints that are often disproportionately felt by travelers to and from small airports.

·         Require marking of shorter towers for the safety of low-flying aircraft such as crop dusters.

·         Call on the FAA to determine alternatives to traditional aviation gasoline and allow for the use of unleaded gasoline.

Aside from the agricultural provisions of the bill, South Dakota Republican John Thune, the chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said in a statement that the bill “does more to enhance security against the threat of terrorism and help frustrated passengers than any proposal in recent history.” The bill now goes to the House for consideration.


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