US House to take up FAA reauthorization act after Senate voted for approval

Image: Air traffic controllers working in an airport control tower. (Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/Gorodenkoff)


The U.S. House is expected this week to take up the Senate-approved federal aviation bill, one supported by Oklahoma U.S. Senators James Lankford and Markwayne Mullin.

The Senate voted Thursday to pass the reauthorization bill which will renew authority for the agency for the next five years. Lankford and Mullin were among the 88 Senators who voted for the measure while four senators voted against it because they wanted more flights in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The package, which passed the Senate on Thursday evening, included Mullin’s amendment #1944 to direct the FAA to allow non-legacy Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) sites, like the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, 44803c waiver eligibility among other provisions for the state.

Currently, only legacy UAS testing sites are eligible to operate as both Public and Civil Aircraft Operators through a FAA administered 44803(c) waiver. This amendment would provide parity between legacy and non-legacy UAS testing sites by allowing non-legacy sites to apply for a 44803(c) waiver.

“FAA reauthorization is crucial to maintaining the excellence of America’s aviation industry,” said Sen. Mullin. “This reauthorization includes provisions that directly benefit Oklahoma, including a plan to expand the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) academy in Oklahoma City and a $300,000 increase in funding for both Lawton-Ft. Sill Regional (LAW) and Stillwater Regional (SWO) airports. Additionally, the legislation includes my amendment to allow Choctaw Nation the ability to apply for a waiver to permit financial transactions for commercial testing to continue their successes in UAS integration into our national airspace.”

Mullin’s amendment is cosponsored by Senator Lankford (R-OK) and supported by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Commercial Drone Alliance, Percepto, and Zipline.

Last week, Sen. Lankford spoke on the Senate floor about the bill, pointing to Oklahoma’s rich aviation history and its relationship with the FAA through the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City.

“Oklahoma City is home to the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center (MMAC), which is an essential part of safe and efficient air travel network coordinated by the FAA. MMAC is home to the only FAA Academy that provides the initial training for air traffic controllers. The FAA Academy provides centralized, standardized, and efficient training to about 20,000 students each year,” he explained to other Senators.

Officially entitled The Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act, it was passed and quickly sent to the House for a vote. Friday was a deadline for the reauthorization but a day before the Senate approval, the House voted to pass a one-week extension for federal aviation programs. It was described as a stopgap effort to head off the end-of-week deadline. Now the new deadline is Friday, May 17.

The bill supported by Sens. Lankford and Mullin authorizes more than $105 billion in funding for the FAA. It also approves $738 million for the National Transportation Safety Board for fiscal years 2024 through 2028.

Oklahoma wins in the FAA:

  • Includes a plan to expand the ATC academy in Oklahoma City.
  • Directs the FAA to institute new drone grant and regulatory programs that will boost cutting-edge research occurring in Oklahoma.
  • Maintains funding for Oklahoma airports under the Airport Improvement Program, including a $300,000 increase in funding for Lawton-Ft. Sill Regional (LAW) and Stillwater Regional (SWO).
  • Enables the ability of Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and other non-legacy UAS testing sites to conduct financial transactions for commercial drone testing and development.

Background on Amendment #1944:

  • The FAA Reauthorization of 2012 was the first time the FAA was directed to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) by creating a 5-year program that established six UAS testing sites, which became operational in 2014.
    • The FAA Extension, Safety and Security Act of 2016 (FESSA 2016) added a seventh legacy test site with final locations in NY, NM, ND, NV, TX, AK, and VA.
    • These designated FAA UAS test sites operate as both Public Aircraft Operators (PAO) and Civil Aircraft Operators (CAO) by providing verification of the safety of public and civil UAS operations into NAS.
  • In 2017, the FAA established the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) that provided the opportunity for additional state, local, and tribal governments to collaborate with companies and the FAA to facilitate complex drone operations and move UAS policy forward.
  • The FAA Reauthorization of 2018 built on the IPP by establishing the 44803(c) waiver (also known as the Charlie Waiver) application process that provided eligible UAS test sites the opportunity to apply for civil (private and commercial) drone airspace testing authority.
    • Currently, only legacy sites can apply for this waiver.
  • Directly after IPP’s expiration in 2020, the FAA established the BEYOND program to continue work on integrating drones into the NAS.
    • BEYOND’s purpose is to continue IPP’s work by advancing repeatable, scalable, and economically viable Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations for high-demand drone application and integration for participating sites located in OK, KS, TN, VA, NC, ND, NV, and AK. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is a member of the BEYOND program as a non-legacy UAS testing site.