Opinion

More Drones, Air-Taxis and Rockets Mean Congress Must Modernize Air Travel

Whatever your feelings about President Donald Trump’s trade dispute with China, it is clear that the United States must be vigilant about remaining the world’s preeminent place to do business. To ensure America’s success on the global stage, our leaders in Washington must make strategic investments in our infrastructure.

When discussing infrastructure, most people think of roads, tunnels and bridges. But lawmakers must also focus on maintaining and upgrading our airspace. The skies are getting more crowded every day and ensuring reliable and safe air travel is essential to a robust economy.

Most importantly, Congress needs to do its job, and fund the Federal Aviation Administration at a multi-year level, to allow the agency to develop and implement long-term plans and invest in modernizing our airspace infrastructure. Regrettably, the continuous short-term funding bills, or Continuing Resolutions, that Congress is passing to fund the FAA is hamstringing the agency.

The FAA’s inability to manage our airspace could not be happening at a worse time. Indeed, the private and public sectors – to improve peoples’ lives and the speed of commerce – are looking to put more flying objects in our skies.

Consider the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called drones. Since 2016, the number of drones above our heads has almost tripled. Today there are about 1.3 million drones registered with the FAA. This does not take into consideration the countless drones not registered with the government, a sobering reality no one wants to think about before they get on an airplane.

Companies like Amazon, FedEx, UPS and others are looking to invest more heavily in drones in the immediate future. Drones aren’t just going to be used as delivery vehicles, either. Farmers are now using them to help manage their fields, to conserve water and reduce the use of pesticides. Uber plans to launch air taxis by the mid-2020s and private space flight is a growing reality. Just this month, Sir Richard Branson announced a plan to publicly trade his commercial space flight company.

Yet, all of these potential aeronautical advancements will be jeopardized if the FAA cannot keep up with the demands on our airspace. Congress must come together in a bipartisan way to ensure the FAA has the sufficient funding and the certainty it needs to keep up with innovation.

To be clear, the FAA is struggling to meet today’s demands.

In March, during a Senate committee hearing, Daniel Elwell, the acting administrator of the FAA, said the agency’s Aircraft Certification Service would need 10,000 more employees and $1.8 billion in funding to handle all certifications directly, instead of its current practice of delegating much of the work to designated employees of the companies it regulates.

The recent debacle with Boeing’s 737 Max demonstrates that allowing companies to regulate themselves can be problematic. Saudi Arabian Airlines recently cancelled an order for 50 new 737 Maxs. Now, that contract will go to Airbus, and instead of creating American jobs, it will help our foreign competitors. How much more proof do we need that the FAA needs more resources to do its job?

Yet, with all of these new requirements of the FAA, the Congress is actually cutting its budget. The FY 2019 budget for the FAA is $549 million dollars less than the previous year. This does not make sense if we are hoping to maximize economic growth through expanded business opportunities in the skies.

Lastly, a massive national investment in infrastructure was part of Trump’s campaign promise to Make American Great Again. The people of this country supported that ideal, and elected a commander in chief they believed would focus on improving our infrastructure.

While a standalone infrastructure bill is unlikely to pass Congress due to partisanship and honest differences of opinion on how to pay for rebuilding our nation, the president can improve our aviation infrastructure by simply demanding that Congress adequately funds the FAA. This would be a win for America’s economy, and a promise kept that the president could campaign on.

Henry Bonilla is a former senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and is currently a partner at The Normandy Group.

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