Feds tout 'year of safety' in aviation

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) touted 2015 as a "year of safety and continued modernization" on Monday as lawmakers are expected to resume consideration of a new funding bill for the agency. 

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a blog post on the transportation department's website that "the dedicated professionals at the Federal Aviation Administration made significant progress this year as we continued to modernize and streamline the nation’s air traffic system while also preparing the way for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to safely play a growing role in aviation."

He cited the agency's efforts to require drone users to register their devices with the federal government and the completion of an airplane navigation system known as En Route Automation Modernization as examples of improvements that were made to the nation's aviation system in 2015. 

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"In April, we completed the program to replace the aging computer system that had been the core technology in our network of high-altitude air traffic control centers," Huerta wrote. "The new system, En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM, is now the backbone for our NextGen Air Transportation System, driving the display screens used by controllers to safely manage and separate aircraft.

"On the recreational front, our most high-profile accomplishment was launching a streamlined and user-friendly web-based aircraft registration process for owners of small UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (approx. 25 kilograms) including payloads such as on-board cameras," Huerta continued. 

"The registration requirement, which went into effect on December 21, is a key opportunity to educate a new generation of airspace users about the rules and regulations they must follow," he concluded. "Registration is free for the first 30 days with a rebate, then $5 after that." 

The comments come as Congress is expected to work quickly in the new year on crafting an FAA bill, which is currently set to expire on March 31

The measure, which authorizes funding for air traffic controllers, is expected to contain a controversial proposal from Republicans to privatize some functions of the nation's flight navigation system. 

Huerta did not address the air traffic control privatization plan on Monday, but he promised to keep working to modernize the nation's aviation system in 2016 while lawmakers are debating a new round of funding for his agency. 

"We’re working on a rule that will allow for routine commercial operations of small UAS, and we expect to have that rule finalized in the late spring of 2016," he wrote. 

"In the meantime, we have been authorizing commercial operations on a case-by-case basis, with more than 2,700 authorized to date," Huerta continued. "We’ll continue working with our partners to identify new outreach opportunities to instill the same priority on safety that has been the hallmark of aviation since Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the skies 112 years ago." 

The FAA has been at the center of budget battles in Washington before. The agency’s last funding measure, in 2012, was passed following a string of more than 20 temporary extensions that resulted in a partial shutdown of the agency in 2011. 

The FAA’s funding was also cut in the 2013 sequester, resulting in air traffic controller furloughs and flight delays, before Congress passed a quick fix to restore the spending. 

Aviation groups are hoping to avoid a repeat of those earlier standoffs in the upcoming FAA funding battle.