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Airlines, Pilots, Aircraft Makers Look to Ease FAA Permitting Backlog

Aircraft manufacturers, airlines and pilot groups are hoping congressional action will help speed up Federal Aviation Administration certification processes for aircraft, operators and repair stations, all severely backlogged as tight budgets have kept staffing thin.

More than 1,000 certifications are backed up at the FAA, according to the agency’s inspector general office, causing big headaches for aircraft manufacturers and others who depend on quick decisions by regulators to conduct their day-to-day business.

The agency “lacks an effective method to prioritize new certifications for air operators and repair stations,” Jeffrey Guzzetti, the FAA assistant inspector general for aviation audits, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation last week as it held a hearing on the agency’s efforts to streamline its certification processes.

Instead, the FAA handles applications on a first-come, first-served basis.

“As a result, many applicants may be significantly delayed if more complex certifications are ahead of them,” Guzzetti said.

That’s left a big backup. Guzzetti’s office told the subcommittee that the FAA had more than 1,000 applications pending for certifications of new air operators, new aircraft and repair stations.

More than 130 had been waiting for more than three years, and at least one has been waiting for seven years.

The problem was exacerbated by last month’s 16-day government shutdown. While thousands of safety-critical employees, such as air traffic controllers were kept on the job, safety inspectors and certification specialists were furloughed, slowing down an already lengthy wait by more than half a month.

A bill that sailed through the House (HR 1848) by a 411-0 vote in July aims to combat those delays. Spurred by small aircraft manufacturers who are worried about the slow writing of new certification rules for their industry, the bill would set a deadline of the end of 2015 for the FAA to complete its final rule-making on regulations governing small-airplane certifications.

The Senate amended the House legislation last month by substituting the text of its companion bill (S 1072) which would set a deadline of Dec. 15, 2015, for completion of the new regulations. That bill was then passed by unanimous consent and is awaiting further House action.

Industry advocates say implementing a simplified regulatory structure for the FAA will be critical if the agency is to keep up with the growth of airplane manufacturers, one of the nation’s most robust manufacturing industries and a critical cornerstone of the export sector.

“In the past year alone, the certification office lost resources due to the sequester, instituted a hiring freeze, and had staff furloughed for more than two weeks due to the government shutdown,” Ali Bahrami, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, told the Aviation subcommittee last month. “Meanwhile, the aviation industry continues to grow, responding to the demand of a global economy. With the continued budget challenges, expecting FAA to keep pace with industry, while conducting business as usual, is not in the realm of possibilities.”

Rep. Mike Pompeo, the Kansas Republican who introduced the House bill, said the legislation would help speed the replacement of the current patchwork of regulations that oversees small aircraft and their pilots, which wasn’t created in unison.

The new regulations, which will be drawn primarily from the work of a rule-making committee that has been meeting since 2011, would help “cut red tape and at the same time improve safety, effectively revitalizing the industry by cutting the cost of new planes,” said Pompeo, a founder of Thayer Aerospace, an airplane components manufacturer from which he disinvested in 2006.

Simplifying the FAA’s certification requirements and responsibilities could be critical in keeping the agency operational if fiscal restraints imposed by Congress remain in place for the long haul.

Lawmakers have given the FAA some latitude in remaking its budget to avoid a repeat of the sequester-related furloughs that affected air traffic controllers back in April. But Administrator Michael Huerta said in a speech last month to Washington’s Aero Club that the agency was stretched thin under its current budget restraints and urged stakeholders, including aircraft manufacturers, to rethink exactly what the agency’s core missions and responsibilities should be.

While Pompeo’s bill and the Senate companion measure introduced by Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar would seemingly put FAA regulators in even more of a bind by imposing a hard deadline, aides and industry lobbyists say the simplification of paperwork and processes that are expected under the new regime would save the agency money and time.

A Congressional Budget Office report confirms that the legislation wouldn’t impose any additional financial burdens on the FAA. Congressional aides say they have been assured that the agency would be able to complete its rule-making work on time.

Even with the small plane certification overhaul, big changes are likely to be in store for the FAA when Congress writes the next air authorization bill when the current authority (PL 112-95) expires at the end of fiscal 2016.

“I think we need to ask ourselves to ask you — our stakeholders — whether we really want to and need to do everything the way we’ve always done it,” Huerta told the Aero Club.

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