U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., has been named to lead a key Senate panel, one that puts her in a powerful position to improve safety in the nation's aviation system and boost both ground and air access to O'Hare International Airport.
The post is the chairmanship of the aviation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. Duckworth will take over as the panel takes up reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that regulates almost all aspects of the flying business from consumer protections to allocation of billions of dollars a year in federal grants.
In an interview, Duckworth said safety ranks at the top of her agenda, given enormous problems with Boeing’s 737 Max and, more recently, a holiday season shutdown of Southwest Airlines that caused nationwide angst.
Part of her brief will be pushing for improved safety standards that require tests to be based on real-world conditions. Another part will be improved consumer protections, such as clarifying rules on how and when airline patrons are entitled to compensation for canceled and delayed flights.
Duckworth said she also intends to push expanded workforce development for an industry that at times has run short of personnel. “Illinois is well positioned to lead on that,” she said, but more can be done.
One of things Duckworth did in prior Congresses was expand federal funding to cover some terminal work, something that local airports traditionally have handled mostly on their own. Duckworth said she’ll push for more as O’Hare gets seriously started on an $8.5 billion terminal modernization and expansion project.
“If I can find ways to allow airports to find money and seek more federal investment, I will,” she said. Access to airports via rail and roads is on her list, too. “Illinois is such a transportation hub, all of these things are linked together.”
Duckworth didn’t get specific, but planners at City Hall and Metra continue to talk about someday linking downtown Chicago and O’Hare via a high-speed rail line that would use existing railroad right of way and potentially whisk riders from one destination to the other in around 15 minutes.
As part of the FAA reauthorization, Congress could create new types of funding streams that can be tailored to specific needs, such as ground access. It also could spur the use of green alternatives to jet fuel, a subject Chicago-based United Airlines has been studying.
Duckworth said the panel has already quietly held one meeting on the FAA reauthorization and could finish by summer.
One thing you can bet will be included: tight rules requiring airlines to take care in moving and storing passengers’ wheelchairs. Duckworth, a double-leg amputee as a result of injuries she sustained in the Iraq War, frequently has complained that carriers break and carelessly handle expensive devices that are critical to personal mobility.