U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson‘s concern about unmanned drones flying near airports led him to get the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee to insert a pilot program to deter them into the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill Wednesday.

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

But Nelson’s crusade to keep drones away from airports may be the most controversial. The bill includes provisions that will allow various technologies to be tested at airports that would allow the airports to intercept or shut down drones near them. 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 press release issued by his office Wednesday. “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, and 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 claim that hobbyists often violate the law, perhaps out of ignorance, and 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 any collisions that caused any damage to airplanes.

Nelson said his push began in the wake of 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; requires refunds of other fees, such as priority boarding, that are not delivered, even if the passenger canals the flight; requires airlines to disclose all fees before a ticket is purchased; and requires airlines to notify customers that they do not have to pay a seat-assignment fee. The bill also requires 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 press release issued by the committee. “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 committee’s release. “There are some good provisions in it that will help consumers and improve drone safety.”

About The Author

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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