Capitol Comment: Modernizing aviation to carry us into the future

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison Jan. 23, 2008, 12:00pm

Just over 100 years ago, the Wright Brothers helped usher in the age of modern aviation as we know it. Since then, commercial aviation has allowed us to live in a more connected world.

One of the great innovators and "connectors" of our time, Bill Gates, noted, "The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas, and values together."

Together, general aviation and commercial service activity account for more than 783,700 jobs, $20.6 billion in payroll, and $48.8 billion in total economic impact in Texas. With approximately 400 airports operating in Texas, our general aviation airport system is one of the largest in the country.

Texas also boasts major international airports that keep our state a hub of tourism and commerce. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport are nationally ranked 4th and 9th, respectively, for passenger activity, making Texas the only state with two airports in the top ten.

Several national commercial carriers also call Texas home, with Continental Airlines based out of Houston, American Airlines in Fort Worth, and Southwest Airlines headquartered in Dallas.

The FAA projects that, by 2015, domestic air travel will nearly double to 1 billion passengers annually. In order to improve security and capacity, and to upgrade key systems like air traffic control, Congress faces the important challenge of modernizing and equipping the aviation industry to keep pace with increasing demand. Such efforts will advance air travel in the short term, and could help set the course for another hundred years of transporting and connecting passengers.

We are currently considering the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007, which would fund and authorize important policies for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for fiscal years 2008 through 2011.

The FAA reauthorization bill makes efforts to modernize the air traffic control system, known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), a national priority. NextGen would broadly expand controller capacity by transferring infrastructure from the Earth to the sky, using orbiting satellites, and relying on aircraft on-board automation and data-link rather than voice communications. These upgrades would allow ATC to monitor more flights, and would allow the U.S. commercial aviation system to accommodate growing demand.

Recent findings indicate that aviation safety is improving. Earlier this year, Aviation Daily reported that air passenger fatality numbers for 2007 fell "well below long-term trends." But modern aviation will always carry some risk, so continued safety monitoring and upgrades will remain critical.

The pending FAA reauthorization bill increases the number of aviation safety inspectors in the Flight Standards Service, and also requires an assessment of training programs for FAA air traffic controllers.

The bill also includes provisions to protect consumers. Too often, passengers are stranded on planes or at other airports for countless hours. The new legislation requires air carriers and airport operators to submit emergency contingency plans to accommodate passengers to the Department of Transportation.

Such plans would ensure that food, water, restroom facilities, and access to medical treatment would be available to passengers during unforeseen events or airport emergencies affecting national air traffic.

As Congress reconvenes, I will take on a new responsibility, as the Ranking Member on the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the FAA, and regulates commercial airlines and the National Transportation Safety Board. I look forward to this new challenge. In 2001, I coauthored legislation to rebuild America's aviation security system.

I was also pleased to broker an agreement, approved by the councils of Dallas and Fort Worth, to open Love Field in Dallas to through-ticketing, while protecting Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. With this agreement, consumers now have more choices when flying into and out of North Texas.

I look forward to working hard to make safe, efficient air travel available to Texans and Americans alike.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior Senator from Texas.

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