FAA reauthorization poses opportunities for U.S. aviation leadership and growth

The U.S. must keep up with the latest technological advances around the world, from unmanned aircraft to next-generation airspace management.

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The United States has been the international leader in aviation since the time of the Wright Brothers. Today, our country has the safest and most efficient airspace in the world. Some of the innovations that make our aerospace industry top in the world are on display this week at the 51st Paris Air Show. I attended the air show two years ago, and these events make it crystal clear: the aviation industry is global, it is competitive, and there are new entrants into the market every day.

The forces of globalization and the growth of emerging international markets present both opportunities and challenges for American aviation. GDP in emerging economies is growing at approximately 5 percent per year, while advanced economies — such as the United States — are only growing at approximately 2 percent. What happens in Shanghai, Dubai, New Delhi, Moscow and Buenos Aires matters here in the United States.

Our country’s success in aviation is not a sure bet in the future. We need to keep up with technological changes happening around the globe, including unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and improved airspace management. The upcoming Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill provides us an opportunity to do just that and cement our country’s continuing legacy as the worldwide aviation leader. Here are a few components of FAA reauthorization that pose opportunities for U.S. leadership and growth.

UAS technology has enormous commercial potential, and the private sector is ready to invest. To the FAA’s credit, the agency is making progress to allow testing and experimentation to ensure safe integration of UAS into the airspace. But I have heard from many companies that are frustrated with the pace of progress. Other countries are getting ahead of the United States in developing and testing UAS in their airspace, and these companies are ready to head abroad to develop their UAS products.

Our country should not lose this business to our international competitors. We need to streamline the UAS integration process, while ensuring that we do so with a focus on safety.

Many people talk about the concerns of autonomous drones, but airline operations have already become highly automated. New planes come with a tremendous amount of automation technology built in. While this has improved safety, it can lead to tragic consequences when used improperly, as with Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco. In the next FAA bill, my colleagues and I will look at the proper balance between automation and pilot manual control.

Another technology program that has faced hurdles is the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). Some have called for a “reset” of NextGen, while others have characterized the program a failure.  But I think that any discussion of the FAA’s performance needs to start with, as a baseline, an acknowledgement of the agency’s accomplishments. During the last Congress, Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo and I tasked the FAA with creating a road map for timely implementation of four near-term priorities for NextGen. With an increased focus and through a lot of hard work, FAA is now implementing these programs. Congressional oversight to ensure that future NextGen programs are on time and on budget will be critical. I believe that Congress can improve on that progress in the next bill.

All of these challenges require different solutions. They will not be resolved without bipartisan oversight and focused effort. That is why I am concerned about proposals to make radical changes to the air traffic system. If such proposals are going to move forward, they need to first answer the question: What are we trying to fix? We are living in the safest period in domestic aviation history, and our system has never been more efficient. Airline profits are at all-time highs, and the FAA is making progress on NextGen implementation. When I talk to 10 proponents of air traffic control changes, I hear 14 different issues that changing the current system will somehow fix. I am also concerned that any transition will backtrack on the progress FAA is making. I am unconvinced that a decade-long transition to a new system would represent progress.

The Paris Air Show provides vital opportunities for our country’s world class aerospace industry to continue growing and innovating. Congress can play its part by getting the next FAA bill right. Our country will keep our aviation system the world’s best, and we will continue U.S. leadership in this critical piece of our economy.

Rep. Rick Larsen represents the Second Congressional District of Washington State, which includes portions of Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties and all of Island and San Juan counties. He is the Ranking Member of the House Aviation Subcommittee.

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