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Legislation Includes Heller Amendments to Improve Air Travel for Disabled Individuals, Advance Nevada’s Drone Industry

Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2017, bipartisan legislation that reauthorizes federal aviation programs through fiscal year 2021. The legislation included several important provisions U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) secured for Nevada, as well as amendments that Heller proposed for today’s markup of the legislation. Heller’s proposals will improve air travel for disabled individuals, boost Nevada’s travel and tourism economy, help veterans find employment, and promote the state’s drone industry. The legislation will now be considered before the full U.S. Senate.

The FAA Reauthorization Act includes Heller’s provisions that will promote the state’s already robust drone industry by extending the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) test sites, authorizing beyond line-of-sight operations at these sites, including Nevada’s, and advancing certification for small UAS package delivery. Furthermore, Heller advocated for pro-tourism policies to increase the competitiveness of Nevada’s airports by allowing Reno-Tahoe International Airport to access resources for attracting new airline routes, as well as ensuring airports like McCarran International can use certain funds for developing multimodal systems to get travelers from the airport into the city. Earlier this month, Heller outlined the importance of these proposals to Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD). The legislation also includes provisions Heller championed last Congress that will encourage the FAA to consider veterans for UAS employment opportunities and give Nevada stakeholders like the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, and the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority a seat at the table for future discussions regarding tourism and infrastructure at the FAA.

In addition to the provisions Heller secured in the underlying bill, Heller ensured inclusion of several amendments during today’s markup on the legislation that the Committee voted to approve. These amendments address better wheelchair assistance by airlines, improve a study on the feasibility for in-cabin restraint systems for disabled individuals, and ensure important stakeholders, like disabled veterans and wheelchair manufacturers, are included in an advisory committee on the air travel needs of passengers with disabilities. He also advanced an amendment to expand the scope of the National Advisory Committee on Travel and Tourism Infrastructure, which advises on transportation infrastructure issues, to include air travel, as well as an amendment to authorizing the FAA to grant waivers allowing for UAS package delivery until a certification process is finalized.

“The Senate Commerce Committee took an important step in advancing legislation that will benefit Nevadans and help Nevada remain a leader when it comes to the development of cutting-edge technologies,” said Heller. “I was proud to champion several provisions that will make it easier for disabled individuals to travel by air, bolster our tourism economy, expand our state’s drone industry, and help Nevada veterans find employment. I will continue to work to ensure that this legislation that includes Nevada’s priorities makes it over the finish line.”

Recently, Heller spoke with Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao at a U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing about the FAA reauthorization legislation and discussed how it can support Nevada’s designated UAS test site and better facilitate research and development of this cutting-edge technology.

Heller amendments passed by the Commerce Committee today and included in the FAA Reauthorization bill that advanced out of Committee:

  • Heller Amendment to Improve Wheelchair Assistance for Disabled Individuals: In the 2016 FAA Extension (Public Law 114-190), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was required to do a report on the training policy of air carriers for persons with disabilities. While it found that the training programs are being carried out as required by law, disability complaints have doubled since 2009. In 2015, air carriers received 30,829 disability-related complaints, nearly half of which were “Failure to Provide Wheelchair Assistance” complaints.  Heller’s amendment would ensure that when the Department of Transportation (DOT) provides its input on best practices following this GAO report, that it includes specific recommendations on improving wheelchair assistance.
  • Heller Amendment to Improve the Study on In-Cabin Wheelchair Restraint Systems: The underlying bill marked up in today’s Committee meeting included an important provision on studying whether a wheelchair restraint system can be implemented. This study should expand the scope of expertise by including critical stakeholders who can act in an advisory role during this process, such as aircraft manufacturers who understand the configuration of a plane, wheelchair manufacturers who understand the design of the product, and disability advocates who understand the specific challenges when using a wheelchair.
  • Heller Amendment to Improve Participation in the Advisory Committee on the Air Travel Needs of Passengers with Disabilities: The underlying bill marked up in today’s Committee meeting included an advisory committee on the air travel needs of passengers with disabilities. This advisory committee has specific membership and will report to DOT on disability-related access barriers. Heller’s amendment would add additional stakeholders to the membership, including aircraft manufacturers, wheelchair manufacturers, and National Veterans Organizations representing disabled veterans.
  • Heller Amendment Expanding the Scope of the NACTTI:  The National Advisory Committee on Travel and Tourism Infrastructure (NACTII) advises on transportation infrastructure issues to DOT, but the roles of the Committee do not specifically address aviation. This would expand the scope of NACTTI to include domestic and international aviation as part of the roles of the Committee. 
  • Heller Amendment Modifying Waiver Authority for Part 107: The FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations allows the FAA Administrator to grant waivers to operate beyond the visual line of sight, over people, and at night, but not for delivery operations. Heller’s amendment would give the FAA Administrator the authority to allow for waivers for delivery operations until the point at which FAA completes a rulemaking on UAS air carrier certification. Until that rulemaking is complete, the FAA should have opportunity to allow companies to demonstrate safe delivery operations that could be useful in the rulemaking process.  It is important for the U.S. to stay competitive globally in the UAS industry given other countries, such as Japan, are prepared to implement drone delivery services in certain areas by 2018.
  • Cortez-Masto/Heller Amendment on UAS Test Sites and Emergency Operations: This amendment extended the authorization even further for the UAS test sites from 2021 in the underlying bill to 2024, ensuring test sites like Nevada’s can continue conducting critical research and development that will inform FAA and other stakeholders on the future needs for integrating this technology and solidifies Nevada’s leadership in advancing the UAS industry. Further, the amendment encourages the FAA to swiftly issue public guidance on waivers using UAS during emergency or disaster situations, such as wildfires, firefighting, and search and rescue.

Heller legislative priorities included in the underlying FAA Reauthorization bill:

  • UAS Test Sites and Authorizing Beyond Line-of-Sight Operations: Since Nevada is one of the six UAS test site locations, it will drive drone-related technological research and economic growth statewide. Sec. 2122 include Senator Heller’s priorities to ensure the UAS test sites, including Nevada’s, are extended beyond 2019 and that the FAA engages the test sites in projects to test, research, and evaluate beyond line-of-sight operations.
  • Small UAS Package Delivery: The Heller-Cantwell UAS carriage provision in Sec. 2136 directs the Department of Transportation (DOT) to establish a streamlined air carrier certification program tailored for unmanned aircraft systems carrying property, like packages.
  • Small Community Air Service Development (SCASD) Program Eligibility: This program provides small airports with additional resources to attract new airline routes; however, the law stipulates that only airports considered small hubs as of 1997 are eligible for the program. Sec. 3202 updates the law to ensure airports, like Reno-Tahoe International Airport, who are currently not eligible but are considered small hubs based off current air traffic can compete for these resources.
  • Veterans Employment at FAA: Given the new career opportunities that the FAA may have in the field of UAS technology, Sec. 2138 requires the FAA to assess whether any of these new occupations can be applied to the FAA’s Veterans’ Employment Program. 
  • Intermodal Access Projects for Airports: Sec. 1402 ensures airports like Las Vegas McCarran Airport can use federal infrastructure dollars for construction of facilities that offer multiple modes of transportation (i.e. bus, rail, Uber, and taxis). This provision could improve tourist access and facilitate economic development opportunities in Nevada.
  • Tourism Stakeholders: The Schatz-Heller Tourism Amendment adds tourism stakeholders, like the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, and the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority, to the Future Aviation Infrastructure and Financing Study provision in the bill.