Q and A: Weighing in on Aviation Policy: September 2011

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Senator Jason Wilson

By Jaime Rall

State legislators come from many walks of life—farmers, attorneys, doctors, educators, clergy and many, many more. This month, State Legislatures talks about aviation policy with two legislators who are also pilots.

In addition to his roles as a small business owner and a legislator, Senator Jason Wilson is also one of two registered pilots in the Ohio General Assembly and one of the founders of the legislature’s bipartisan aviation caucus, which now has more than 70 members.

Senator Ernie Harris has done double duty as a legislator and as a pilot for the United Parcel Service of America Inc. since he started serving in the Kentucky Senate in 1995.

State Legislatures: Can you comment on Congress’s failure to pass an aviation bill so far this year, and the importance of this bill to the states?

Senator Jason Wilson: It all comes down from above. The federal money is the seed money for the state. In many areas—in aviation and in general aviation, too—we are seeing the effects of the federal funds being limited and reduced. We are now seeing the first effects of what it means to lose some of that federal funding, and it has a tremendous impact.

Aviation is all about stretching the limitations of man. And it’s very disappointing that by delaying this important legislation, the federal government is not giving us the ability to reach our potential—to use our technology and ingenuity in the field of aviation, either to create jobs or to change lives. They’re keeping us tied to the ground, when we should be soaring.

SL: What effect has federal funding uncertainty had on aviation projects and programs in your state?

Senator Ernie HarrisSenator Ernie Harris: States have a very difficult time doing any long-range planning for airport facilities without a federal aviation bill. For example, we want to add a new taxiway to enhance cargo operations at Louisville International Airport, which would cost an easy $25 million. But since we don’t know how much money we can expect to get, we have to do it piecemeal, which ultimately drives up the cost. States’ inability to do long-range planning for facilities is the biggest issue with not having federal legislation in place.

Another issue is that our skies are getting more and more crowded, and we need ways to reduce the congestion. The technology being looked at to better handle air traffic is GPS-related. But until we have an aviation bill that addresses and funds things related to this technology, air traffic control will be more difficult.

Wilson: Ohio is growing. The Port Columbus international airport is growing as a multimodal and intermodal facility for moving products, but there’s been a four-year holdup to updating our facilities—including cargo handling as well as trade and customs areas. Federal dollars have been used in the past to build these facilities and support state dollars to make these industries grow. Now we’ve been waiting for years to get these projects started, and have had to look for alternative funding to get us there. The number one goal of any state right now is to create jobs, and building these projects creates jobs. But if you can’t get the funding to build the building, you can’t do anything else.

We also need aviation facilities to support business activity in the state. One of the largest industrial parks in Ohio is in my home county of Jefferson County, but the runway at the airport is too short to land a business jet. But the budget for aviation projects in my county is now about a third of what it was a few years ago because the state DOT can’t draw down the federal dollars. Now the state is more likely to do five projects worth a smaller amount than one large project. Businesses don’t use buses or hitchhike, they fly in jets and we can’t land them. We haven’t put out the welcome mat for businesses to land and do business here, and if they can’t get to the front door, they probably won’t go through it.

SL: From your perspective as a pilot, what are some of the key issues that should be addressed in federal aviation legislation?

Harris: The two most important issues to be addressed in federal aviation legislation are construction and congestion. But also, from a pilot’s perspective, we feel the FAA needs to give us clearer guidelines about limits on daily flights because of fatigue. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a night flyer like I am with UPS or a day flyer with a passenger service, fatigue is a huge problem—especially the cumulative effects of fatigue over several days of flying. Probably well over half the aviation accidents in America, pilot factor is a part of it. Planes don’t just blow up in the air anymore. We hope that whenever this bill is passed, the FAA will look at the issue of pilot fatigue more closely.

SL: Anything else you’d like to share with fellow state lawmakers across the country?

Harris: We can contact the federal delegation, as we always do, but really the main thing is to be aware of the impact that not having the federal aviation reauthorization has on your individual states.

Wilson: Every legislator needs to be educated on the field they’re voting on. The closest most people get to knowing about aviation is buying an airline ticket. The vast majority of funding goes to highways and surface transportation and people see the importance of surface transportation because the highways are down here, but they don’t see the workings of aviation. When people drive down the road, they see orange barrels and they see that construction is happening for the betterment of transportation. What they don’t see is the instruments that are needed for aviation, they don’t see the aviation highways, they don’t see the radar, they don’t see the infrastructure of an airport, they never get to see the workings of the aviation community. Every legislator should go visit their county airport and find out what is going on and the future is of the airport, go up in an airplane and learn the importance of GPS, what these things mean. They’ve got to get involved in understanding this. And the aviation community also needs to reach out and educate legislators.