Aerospace industry leaders say New Mexico could “lose” its spaceport unless state lawmakers provide manufacturing and supply companies some protection from litigation should an accident happen during commercial spaceflight.
A newly formed “Save Our Spaceport Coalition” said at a news conference Thursday morning that it will aggressively urge the Legislature to expand the state’s “informed consent” law to include companies that provide components and services to Virgin Galactic and others who plan to fly paying passengers to space from Spaceport America. The law currently only protects spaceflight operators from litigation.
Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides said expanding the law is critical to the spaceport’s success.
“We’re fighting hard to stay here,” he said. “We’ll look at our future following this next legislative session.”
“If I were a New Mexican, what I’d be concerned about is that taxpayers have already invested $209 million to build the spaceport, and it’s generating a lot of jobs,” Whitesides told the Journal. “Because of this small law, New Mexico could put that investment at risk.”
New Mexico Aviation Aerospace Association President Bill McMillan said the state will be unable to recruit more companies to the spaceport without expanding the law, and it could lose anchor tenant Virgin Galactic, because other states with broader laws in place are trying to lure the industry away.
“It is clear that the liability laws have changed in the country and other states want to steal our business,” said McMillan, an insurance provider in the aviation industry. “We must maintain our competitiveness or see the industry go elsewhere.”
Whitesides said the ability to forge a commercial space industry depends as much on companies that build and provide components, systems and services as it does on spaceflight operators like Virgin Galactic. But without liability protection, those support firms won’t come to New Mexico.
Two companies, XCOR Aerospace and RocketCrafters Inc., recently chose to establish operations in Texas and Florida rather than New Mexico, largely because those states have broader liability laws in place. Virginia has also approved similar laws and is working to recruit companies.
Bills to expand New Mexico’s informed consent law failed in the last two legislative sessions, because they never emerged from committees in the House and Senate for floor votes, said Rep. Jim White of Albuquerque, who is supporting the coalition’s efforts.
New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association president David Stout argued in the last session that the bill would provide almost unlimited immunity from lawsuits, which would be unprecedented in New Mexico. Some lawmakers said they were concerned about watering down consumer protections.
White and Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela, who also spoke at the conference, said lobbying by New Mexico trial lawyers is a key reason the bill has been stuck.
“The trial lawyers are a formidable political force, but we’ve established a broad coalition,” Barela said. “This all about jobs, and a lot of people from all over the state will be supporting this.”
Barela said Gov. Susana Martinez would sign a bill if the Legislature approves it.
Whitesides said misconceptions may be impeding legislation, such as the erroneous belief that people on the ground can’t sue if they suffer damages in an accident. But liability limitation only applies to passengers on flights, who will be extensively briefed about the risks they take, and they’ll be required to sign informed consent forms before they fly.
“There’s zero impact on the people of New Mexico,” Whitesides said. “There’s some misunderstanding that this could affect the rights of citizens to sue, and that’s not the case. In fact, even our customers can sue in cases of gross negligence.”
The coalition is attracting broad support from industry and community leaders statewide, given the spaceport’s potential economic impact throughout New Mexico. Richard Holcomb of the Tourism Association of New Mexico, for example, said his industry will lobby aggressively to pass the informed consent bill given the huge influx of tourism dollars the spaceport is expected to generate.
Industry studies estimate that between 200,000 and 500,000 more tourists will visit New Mexico annually once the spaceport is fully operational, Holcomb said. At the low end, that would mean 2 million additional visitors to New Mexico in the spaceport’s first ten years.
“Every community stands to benefit,” Holcomb said. “The spaceport can put a lot more people to work in long-lasting jobs. If we fail to extend the liability exemptions, it could have a devastating impact on New Mexico.”
The New Mexico Lodging Association, Greater Albuquerque Innkeepers Association and the Santa Fe Lodgers’ Association are also part of the coalition, according to Charlie Gray, who heads all three organizations.
Gray said the hotel industry across the state would benefit from a viable spaceport.
“I think it’s important to the entire state we don’t lose Virgin Galactic,” he said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal