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Secretary Ray LaHood Remarks as Prepared American Association of Airport Executives & Airports Council North America Legislative Conference

Thank you, Bruce Carter, Director of the Quad City Airport], for your kind introduction.  Thank you, Frank [Miller, Chair of the ACI] and Kelly [Johnson, Vice Chair of the AAAE], for your remarks.  All of us at the Department of Transportation are grateful for the work that the AAAE and ACI-NA membership does, day in and day out, on behalf of the traveling public.  So, I’m thrilled to be with you.

Last week, we heard President Obama lay out his vision for America’s future.  He spoke about the investments we need to make today to ensure that America’s economy grows today and competes tomorrow.  He made it clear -- once again -- that to “win the future,” we must first rebuild America.

After I finished watching the State of the Union, I got to thinking: If I were to deliver a “state of our skies” address, what would I say?

Well, I’d remind you that U.S. airlines did not have a single fatal accident last year – the third time in the last four years this has happened.  But I’d also tell you that we are not resting on our laurels – and that safety will always be our number one priority.

I’d tell you that the transition to America’s NextGen air traffic control system is happening and gaining momentum – with ADS-B capability expanding rapidly. Our goal is to create a unified vision of our airports and air space – a single screen that ensures America’s pilots, air traffic controllers, and aviation safety professionals can all see the same thing at the same time.

Through the Recovery Act – our emergency response to the economic crisis – the FAA funded 246 runway, taxiway, and apron reconstruction and rehabilitation projects, giving many old facilities a new lease on life for the 21st century.

Because of the Alternative Minimum Tax holiday, airports realized $1.6 billion in savings on private activity bonds during the life of the Recovery Act.

Through the Voluntary Airport Low Emission – or VALE – grant program, the FAA has helped 22 of America’s airports “go green” and pilot 40 innovative projects that are improving travelers’ experiences and protecting the planet simultaneously.

And my “state of the skies” address would include the details of one of our greatest success stories: the Tarmac Delay Rule.    Just look at the facts.  Between May and October 2009, there were 546 three-plus hour tarmac delays.   Between May and October 2010, there were just 12 – none of which exceeded three hours by more than minutes.  So, clearly, we’ve made enormous progress – in spite of some problems with foreign carrier flights at JFK during the holiday season.

Now, in 2011, we’re aiming even higher.  That’s why we’ve proposed additional requirements that would increase compensation for passengers bumped from oversold flights; additional requirements that would enable customers to hold reservations without payment for 24 hours or to return tickets for a full refund within 24 hours of their purchase; and additional requirements that would make airlines reimburse your baggage fees if they lose your bags. 

I know you’ll agree that treating travelers well makes good business sense too – that safety and consumer protection go hand in hand.  After all, the faith that American travelers have in the aviation industry is hard-won but easily lost. So I hope you’ll join us to support these important measures, which are essential to protecting the rights of air travelers.

We also need your support to get the FAA reauthorization legislation done.  The Senate is considering it.  The House will do so soon.  And we’re confident that all sides are committed to getting the bill passed and to the President’s desk quickly. 

Look: You know that FAA reauthorization is not only critical,   but also a real opportunity for both parties to come together.  It’s an opportunity to invest in tomorrow’s aviation system while creating jobs in today’s economy.  We certainly hope you’ll stand with us at this important moment.  Because, let’s face it:  In some ways, the technology we have in our cars these days is more up to date than the technology we have in our cockpits.  We know that retrofitting planes with state of the art NextGen technologies requires a significant up-front investment. 

In an industry where profit margins are closely guarded, it’s not an easy call to make upgrades.  So, as some of you know, we’re making it a little easier to do exactly that thanks to the tax cut bill that President Obama signed into law before the holidays. 

What does it mean for the airline industry?  It means there is no better time to invest in airport, air craft, and air traffic technology – to enjoy minimum costs and maximum long-term benefits.  It means there is no better time to plan, invest, and build for our future competitiveness.  And it’s no coincidence that we’re doing the same thing within the department.

That’s why last spring we launched the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee.  We asked this diverse group of policy experts to make policy and regulatory recommendations. And they answered our call with 23 consensus suggestions.

Think about that.  23 consensus recommendations from an industry not exactly associated with consensus!

Now, we’re closely reviewing these ideas. We’re working to implement them quickly and responsibly.  We’ll be appointing someone full time – someone directly accountable to me – who will make sure we’re getting this done in the right way.  We will put in place a reporting structure so we can keep monitoring, evaluating, and refining our efforts over time.

The bottom line on FAAC is this: These recommendations will not gather dust on a shelf.  They won’t get forgotten in a file cabinet.  They will guide our actions today, tomorrow, and in the future.

So, for the department, this will be our year ahead: We will work to make our skies safer; to accelerate the transition to NextGen; to better protect travelers; to pass and begin to implement the FAA reauthorization; and to lay the groundwork that allows the industry to, as President Obama said, win the future.

We’re all in this together.  Yes, the government can set goals.  We can fund projects.  We can create regulations.  But it’s up to you – the leaders at the state and local level – to put all the pieces together.  And you’re clearly doing something right.

If we keep working together, if we keep finding common ground, we’ll keep American moving, building and competing – not just today, not just tomorrow, but for years to come.

Updated: Wednesday, April 18, 2012
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