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Begich Supports FAA Reauthorization in Senate

Bill creates jobs, improves aviation safety in Alaska

Begich amendment exempts Alaska from oxygen shipment rules

With an eye on improving aviation safety and stimulating job creation, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich voted to pass the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act.  With widespread impacts on aviation in Alaska, the legislation passed with strong bipartisan support, 93 to 0.

The bill makes significant investments in FAA programs, including $8.1 billion nationwide for the Airport Improvement Program which will create American jobs and support airport infrastructure in Alaska.  The bill includes $175 million a year for the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes regular air service to rural areas throughout the country, including 45 communities in Alaska.

“You can’t go wrong with a bill that creates jobs, improves the safety and efficiency of air travel, and invests in our airports,” Begich said. “Many of our communities have no road or ferry access.  Aviation is our lifeline as many Alaskans rely completely on small aircraft to keep our communities connected.”

Sen. Begich successfully added an amendment to the bill benefitting healthcare and employment in rural Alaska.  The amendment, offered with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, gives Alaska an exemption to a new rule which went into effect last October requiring cylinders of compressed oxygen and other oxidizing gases to be shipped in rigid, thermal-resistant “super boxes” when transported on aircraft. 

The rule has proved to be overly burdensome in rural Alaska, particularly for communities not connected to the road system which can only receive medical oxygen via aircraft.  The “super boxes” are expensive, take-up considerable weight and space aboard a plane, and are not even manufactured for the larger cylinders used by hospitals and the construction industry. 

“Not only does this regulation threaten the health and safety of my constituents but it has halted construction projects in rural communities where they don’t have the oxygen they need to perform welding or other industrial applications, jeopardizing the upcoming summer construction season,” Begich said. 

After hearing from medical personnel, airlines, and contractors, the Alaska Congressional delegation worked with the FAA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to get special permits in Alaska allowing for transport without a “super box.”  The permits, however, only exempt oxygen for medical and veterinary uses and expire later this summer. The amendment passed today would cover the shipment of all oxygen cylinders, regardless of the end use.

“We are pleased to be able to offer a permanent fix to a situation threatening the safety and welfare of rural Alaskans,” Begich said. “It’s a perfect example of new rules going into place without recognition of the potential impacts for thousands of Alaskans.  I appreciate the support Sen. Murkowski and I received from our colleagues for this exemption in Alaska.”

Sen. Begich was pleased to congratulate Bethel musher Pete Kaiser after he finished the Iditarod in 28th place. Kaiser carried an oxygen cylinder on his sled during the race to highlight the importance of the issue to Alaskans.

The provision still needs to be agreed to in Conference Committee with the House before the change is codified.

The FAA bill also accelerates the deployment of “NextGen,” the comprehensive initiative to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system from outdated ground-based radar to a more accurate satellite tracking system. The technology at the heart of NextGen, known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) was first tested in Alaska in an effort to reduce aviation accidents as part of the Capstone program in 1999. 

Other provisions in the FAA Reauthorization Act benefiting Alaska include:

  • Language necessary to complete land transactions relating to the widening of Anchorage’s 5th Avenue;

  • The FAA will be directed to implement a system to improve volcanic ash avoidance for aircraft;

  • Language offered by Begich allows for the expanded use of Unmanned Aerial Systems in the Arctic which are used for scientific research by University of Alaska Fairbanks

Other items in the bill include a passenger’s bill of rights, measures to combat pilot fatigue, enhanced training, allowing airlines to look at a pilot’s complete history when hiring, and holding regional airlines and their partners more accountable for safety.

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