Government and Industry Officials Talk Aviation Challenges, Regulations
June 7, 2018
As the end of the Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary funding extension looms near, decision-makers and stakeholders continue to confront challenges facing the aviation industry. On Thursday morning, Washington Post Live hosted legislators, industry leaders, and U.S. Department of Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao for Taking Flight: Regulating Our Skies. During two panels and a one-on-one interview, speakers discussed the pilot shortage, consumer experience, drones, and impending legislation.
Trained, experienced pilots are necessary to provide safe, efficient air service. All three speaker sessions discussed the expected pilot shortage—citing impending retirements, an increase in demand for air travel, and a decrease in the pipeline supply of military trained pilots. The FAA-issued July 2013 rule mandating 1,500 training hours in the air before issuing Airline Transport Pilot licenses to new commercial pilots (mandated by Congress after the Colgan Air crash) is a common scapegoat for this unintended consequence creating a pilot pipeline deficit. Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, respectively, talked about proposals to reduce the 1,500-hour requirement outright or to allow exemptions for nonacademic, airline training programs.
Sec. Chao described the situation as a perfect storm of an aging generation of active pilots preparing to retire, increased air traffic as the industry expands, and lower military enrollment that cannot be relied upon as a pilot pipeline anymore. In discussing potential solutions to aviation workforce challenges, she referenced the USDOT Volpe National Transportation System Center’s Forces to Flyers initiative announced in 2017, which researches and then implements pathways for veterans to become airline pilots. The program awarded contracts to flight schools across four regions in May 2018 to alleviate the high cost of pilot training.
In the discussion among representatives of American airports, airlines, and passengers, moments of disagreement arose as the speakers in favor of conflicting levels of regulation reached little consensus. Paul Hudson, President of FlyersRights.org, promoted consumer demands like seat size minimums and greater fee transparency for ticket price shopping as desired new regulations.
There are many elements to characterizing competition—or lack thereof—in air transportation that may be seen when ultra-low-cost carriers put downward pressure on fare prices or four major carriers control 85 percent of the flying market as a result of mergers and acquisitions. Some consumers argue for a standard of comfort in federal regulations while others are willing to buy discounted tickets for striped-down trips without amenities.
In her later session, Sec. Chao outlined her agency’s approach to consumer protection, namely relaunching an informational website. Rather than prematurely regulating the private sector, the agency has chosen to empower traveling individuals with a “Know Your Rights” information campaign approach and leave the free market to compete with superior customer service. Sen. Cantwell raised two proven methods for increasing airport security efficiency without sacrificing safety: K-9 team explosive detection and Transportation Security Administration automated screening lanes, such as those in use at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Airports and airlines, which are in a symbiotic business relationship, both seek to modernize facilities and technology into the 21st century. Kevin M. Burke, President and CEO of Airports Council International – North America, supports raising the Passenger Facility Charge for the express purpose of funding infrastructure reinvestment and capacity expansion. (This would require a change in law, and neither the House nor Senate version of the pending FAA reauthorization bill would allow a PFC increase.) Sean Kennedy, Senior Vice President for Global Government Affairs, Airlines for America, highlighted in-air infrastructure—emphasizing the benefits of a system-wide upgrade from radar air traffic control to GPS tracking through adoption of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), a topic on which Eno is currently engaged.
Drones were only briefly discussed. Sec. Chao reiterated her agency mission to balance public safety by encouraging new opportunities from American innovation. Sen. Cantwell spelled out diverse uses for the unmanned devices ranging from commercial and emergency delivery, firefighting, and Coast Guard operations. As policymakers determine which body should regulate drones, Sen. Blunt reminded audience members that whichever agency is assigned absolute regulatory authority would need dedicated funding to do so—be it FAA or the Department of Defense.
Pulling back to the bigger picture of the national economy and the Trump administration, Sec. Chao highlighted the latest jobs report as a marker of success. Meanwhile Sen. Cantwell cautioned that the recent executive announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs would harm middle class jobs at major aircraft manufacturers that depend on massive export contracts.
U.S. air traffic set a new all-time high of 965 million passengers in 2017. As the aviation industry continues to thrive and break records, it must prepare for its expected pilot shortage and greater accountability by means of social media. In addition, airlines must manage unpredictability in jet fuel prices, tragic accidents and malfunctions like Southwest 1380, and evolving consumer preferences such as support and service companion animals onboard.