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Congressman Adrian Smith

Representing the 3rd District of Nebraska

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Reviving Air Travel in Nebraska

October 12, 2018
Column

On October 5th, President Trump signed into law the 2018 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act to update and authorize its activities for another five years. This is important to Nebraska’s Third District because it contained a policy change whose specific aim is to support and revive commercial air service to our rural communities.

Air travel volume at smaller airports in rural areas such as the Third District declined in recent years due in part to increased government regulations. One major cause occurred in 2013 when the FAA changed its requirement for first officers, or co-pilots, to certify 1,500 hours of flight time instead of 250 hours, which was previously the norm.

Under the previous regulation, junior pilots were able to earn a wage while training on the job with experienced pilots. This change, while well-intentioned from a safety standpoint, created a shortage of co-pilots which was cited as the main reason behind the bankruptcy of two airlines which previously served Third District airports.

The domino effect continued as air traffic declined and in turn threatened these airports’ access to federal funding should they fall below 10,000 enplanements per year, which is the threshold for full funding under the Airport Improvement Program. This program provides funding for capital and safety improvements to buildings, runways, control towers, and fueling infrastructure.

A small decline in enplanements could snowball into a much larger issue affecting the competitiveness of our airports by allowing them to fall into disrepair if deprived of such a vital source of funding. In order to stop this chain reaction, I wrote and introduced the Small Airport Regulation Relief Act in 2014, which was enacted into law in 2016 and again in 2018 as part of the FAA reauthorization I mentioned above.

Its purpose is to provide relief to these airports by exempting them from the 10,000 enplanement minimum and allowing continued access to federal funding as the pilot labor market expands to fill the void created by increased regulation by the FAA. In meetings with pilots and airline representatives, I have been told that changes to the structure of pilot training programs will help to provide additional pilots moving forward.

Should this not materialize, I am ready and willing to consider additional regulatory relief to deliver a full recovery at Third District airports. Declining demand is not a fact of life at our rural airports as recently announced direct service to Las Vegas from Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island has shown us. Commercial air service is vital to maintaining a vibrant rural economy and it will remain among my highest priorities as I serve as your representative in Congress.