U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has introduced legislation designed to protect and improve important aviation programs in Alaska, including an exemption that would allow the Iditarod Air Force to accept cost deferments for flying in support of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, according to a June 3 press release from her office.
Murkowski’s Alaska Omnibus Aviation Improvement Act (S.1170) was introduced in advance of Senate consideration of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill during the 111th Congress. “I hope the Senate will consider these Alaska priorities as we debate the upcoming FAA reauthorization bill,” Murkowski said.
The “Iditarod Air Force Exemption” her bill calls for concerns the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race each March, which retraces the path of “the heroes who, in 1925, faced Alaska’s wilderness to transport lifesaving serum from Anchorage to Nome.” The all-volunteer Iditarod Air Force has supported the race for nearly 20 years but recently has struggled with FAA regulations prohibiting volunteer pilots from accepting cost deferments, such as fuel, accommodations and food. The volunteers were granted exemptions to operate during the 2008 and 2009 races, which Murkowski supported strongly.
“The Iditarod is a hallmark of the Alaskan spirit, and it could not go on without the efforts of the Iditarod Air Force,” Murkowski said. “The FAA’s lack of rules to allow volunteer flights should not jeopardize the future of the Iditarod. The FAA must find a long-term solution that allows volunteer pilots to support the race, while protecting public safety and the interests of commercial carriers,” the senator said.
Murkowski’s bill would require the FAA to grant a five-year exemption to the Iditarod Air Force, allowing the pilots to accept cost deferments for flying in support of the race. The exemption also would require the FAA to ensure safety and check the availability of alternative modes of transportation.
In the aviation-dependant state of Alaska, Flight Service has a special importance. The FAA recognized this fact in 2005 when it outsourced the Flight Service functions in the lower 48 but kept Alaska Flight Service Stations intact. “The contracted stations in the lower 48 states have caused inconvenience for pilots and could pose serious problems in Alaska,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski’s bill recognizes that services provided by the Alaska Flight Service stations cannot be continued without proper personnel and equipment. The bill would require the FAA to create and implement a plan to train flight service specialists. A formal training program for Alaskan flight service specialists does not exist currently, since the FAA no longer offers the initial training. Further, the bill would require the FAA to examine existing Flight Service stations and create a schedule for necessary inspections and upgrades.
“Flight Service Stations provide vital services to pilots in Alaska and across the country. As the Congress moves to improve the outsourced Flight Service Stations in the lower 48, we must also ensure that the FAA maintains its commitment to Alaskan aviators,” Murkowski said.
The Medallion Foundation is a non-profit organization that works to reduce aviation accidents in Alaska. In addition to training and educational services, Medallion sets voluntary standards above FAA regulations that air carriers strive to meet. The program is recognized as an innovative method to foster a safety-conscious culture, and has been funded by Congress for many years. Most recently, the Medallion Foundation received $2.375 million in the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations bill. Murkowski’s bill would authorize the Medallion Foundation to receive federal funding from 2009 to 2012.
The Alaska Aviation Safety Project is a joint venture between the state of Alaska and the federal government that also focuses on general aviation safety. The Foundation is currently authorized to receive federal funding in 2004 through 2007 to develop three-dimensional maps of Alaska’s main aviation corridors. As the project is ongoing, Murkowski’s bill would extend the authorization through 2012.
Federal funding from AIP grants currently can’t be used to create trainee positions, which are important for the workforce development necessary to sustain a viable economy. Murkowski pointed out that other agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration, allow grant recipients to create workforce development programs. A much higher proportion of federal infrastructure spending in Alaska goes to airports, as compared to the lower 48 states, so the restriction puts Alaska at a disadvantage when it comes to creating a sustainable workforce, she said.
“Workforce development is imperative, especially during these tough economic times,” Murkowski said. “Allowing flexibility for the State of Alaska to create trainee programs with AIP funding is a simple way to improve the strength of our economy at no additional cost to the taxpayer.” The bill would require the FAA to allow the State of Alaska to create trainee programs with AIP funds, as is currently done with Highway funds.