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Bill Nelson gets drones-at-airports intercept program into FAA reauthorization bill

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U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson‘s concern about unpiloted drones flying near airports led him to take steps in Senate action Wednesday to stop them.

Florida’s senior senator had the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee insert a pilot program to deter them into the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill.

Senate Bill 2658, which ranking Democrat Nelson of Florida and Chairman Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, had marked up and approved by the committee, also includes new protections for airline passengers hit with various fees.

Nelson’s crusade to keep drones away from airports may be the most controversial. The bill includes provisions to allow airport testing of various technologies that would enable them to intercept or shut down nearby drones. It also applies to other sensitive areas such as military and NASA installations.

“The bottom line is that we need to do everything we can to protect the flying public from the threat posed by drones,” Nelson stated in a news release from his office. “We can’t afford to have one of those drones bring down an airliner.

In February Nelson convened a meeting in Orlando of a half-dozen directors of Florida’s biggest airports (except Fort Lauderdale) and a national airport organization. They all urged him to move forward to help prevent drones from flying into airport airspace.

It’s already against the law, but airport officials contend that hobbyists often violate the law. That may be out of ignorance, but the potential exists for terrorists to ignore the law. There have been numerous reports of near misses between airplanes and drones, though there have been no reports of collisions that damaged planes.

Nelson said his push began after a December report that found at least 241 close calls across the United States, including 24 in Miami and 13 in Orlando.

Among other provisions, the marked-up bill would require:

  • Airlines to refund bag fees if the luggage is not delivered within six hours after arrival of a domestic flight or 12 hours after an international flight;
  • Refunds of other fees, such as priority boarding, that are not delivered, even if the passenger canals the flight;
  • Airlines to disclose all fees before a ticket is purchased;
  • Airlines to notify customers that they don’t have to pay a seat assignment fee; and
  • Airlines to tell people if adjoining seats are not available for free for children.

The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

“Passage of this bipartisan legislation is a win for airline passenger rights, advancing responsible drone usage, boosting the competitiveness of the aerospace industry, and making our skies safer,” Thune stated in a committee news release. “I look forward to considering these reforms on the Senate floor and building consensus with our colleagues in the House.”

“It’s really encouraging to see the FAA bill pass and have such bipartisan support,” Nelson stated in the release. “There are some good provisions in it that will help consumers and improve drone safety.”

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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