House T&I Holds Wide-Ranging Aviation Hearing
On Tuesday, February 7, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a broad hearing on aviation as a first step in the reauthorization process for the federal aviation law, which expires September 30, 2023. Six witnesses testified at the hearing (click on their name to read their prepared testimony):
- Dave Boulter, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety (Acting), Federal Aviation Administration
- Jennifer Homendy, Chair, National Transportation Safety Board
- Jason Ambrosi, President, Air Line Pilots Association, International
- Pete Bunce, President and Chief Executive Officer, General Aviation Manufacturers Association
- Ed Bolen, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Business Aviation Association
- Kerry Buckley, Vice President, Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, MITRE Corporation
Chaired by new chairman Sam Graves (R-MO), members highlighted the industry’s stellar safety record over the past decade and delved into a number of major and minor topics, all of which are sure to be part of the reauthorization discussion. Three critical and interrelated subjects dominated the hearing:
Several members noted that passenger fatalities have all but disappeared from commercial aviation. In the past 14 years, in only two years was there a passenger fatality as a result of an accident of a U.S. air carrier. In fact, in the last quarter century, fatalities decreased by 95 percent. While Acting Administrator Boulter highlighted the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) ongoing rulemaking to improve safety, members pointed out several problems that raise ongoing concerns. For example, the recent outage of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system that grounded the nation’s air network, and worries about cyberattacks highlight the need to strengthen the nation’s information technology infrastructure. Dr. Buckley highlighted the role of public/private partnerships and highlighted the development of the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing program (ASIAS) that focuses on detecting risks before they result in accidents. It is a model that could be applied as uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) and electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) systems proliferate.
Innovations in aviation were the subject of both praise and distress among members and witnesses. Several members raised concerns about the recent conflicts between the aviation and telecommunications industries over the rollout of new 5G networks. The aviation industry believed these new systems would compromise the accuracy of safety-critical instruments for determining aircraft elevation and the wireless technology companies voluntarily agreed to postpone their deployment and worked with the aviation stakeholders on a modified rollout. While the crisis was averted, it exposed critical and interrelated gaps and failures in the process and policies used for efficiently allocating spectrum. (Note: look for new Eno research on this topic soon.)
Members also asked about how the FAA was working to develop regulations over drone operations. The FAA witness noted that the rulemaking system is not quick, but they expect to have what they need to have done from an aviation safety perspective by early next year at the latest. It was agreed all around that the FAA could have worked faster on the rules.
Frustration over the federal government’s ability to work quickly and with agility—while maintaining safety standards—is hampering the nation’s ability to develop innovation around the aviation system. The FAA stated that in 2022 the agency hired 200 additional people in aviation safety and that the new people coming on bring new and different skills but acknowledged that the transition and training the new people will be a challenge. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association’s (GAMA) Bunce noted that the rulemaking for certifying his products works well, until the point that action is needed from FAA. He expressed his belief that something is wrong with the process and pointed to the new FAA personnel working on certification have too little experience. Other problems such as the chromic turnover problem in airport service jobs were noted, along with the lack of incentives to bring new workers into the sector. The need for better wage and benefits standards for airport workers was emphasized.
Representative Lamalfa noted that the industry has about 8,000 fewer airline pilots than it needs. He pointed out the requirements for training including the number of hours needed for training. Captain Ambrosi identified the pandemic as a major inhibitor of pilot training and recognized the credits available for military pilots and those with advanced degrees, but demurred at the notion of reducing the 1,500 hour rule. He did emphasize his organization’s desire for more diversity among airline pilots.
Other issues were raised in the course of the lengthy, but important hearing. Based on members’ questions, issues concerning airport noise, climate change, sustainable fuels, set sizes, and curb management at airports will all be topics the committee will tackle this year.