A federal report detailing safety concerns with the nation’s air traffic control system is turning up the heat on lawmakers to pass the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, with a short window after the Thanksgiving recess to get it done or temporarily extend the agency’s authority.
An independent review commissioned by the FAA in response to a number of near-miss incidents found the system is understaffed, old and inadequately funded, causing an “erosion in the margin of safety.”
“Together, these challenges contribute to increased safety risk and should be regarded as incident precursors,” the panel concluded. “[T]he FAA continues to be asked to do more with less in an already strained system, and the series of serious incidents in early 2023 illuminate significant challenges to the provision and safety oversight of air traffic services.”
FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said Monday he is taking actions to implement the report’s recommendations, including increasing hiring rates and deploying high resolution tower simulators at facilities across the country.
The air traffic control system’s woes are in part fueled by gridlock on funding alongside a tendency to act slowly on reauthorization.
“This stop-and-start process in Congress has resulted in the disruption of critical activities, notably including the hiring and training of air traffic controllers,” said the review, conducted by a team of six officials including former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and former NASA head Charles Bolden. “It has also slowed down the implementation of key technology modernization programs, delayed thousands of flights, and held up billions of dollars of airport infrastructure investments.”
Between 2007 and 2012, Congress passed 23 short-term extensions of FAA’s authorizing legislation, and in one instance in 2011 there was a two-week lapse. The 2013 budget sequestration resulted in furloughs of FAA staff, including air traffic controllers and technicians, in which employees did not receive compensation.
Congress enacted six short-term extensions before the most recent reauthorization passed, while in late 2018 a partial government shutdown meant air traffic controllers worked 35 days without a paycheck, although they were compensated later.
Congress averted a government shutdown last week with a stopgap measure that extends current funding for the FAA until Jan. 19.
Lawmakers now have until Dec. 31 to reauthorize the agency, but there are several crucial steps in the three remaining weeks of the 2023 session before that can happen: The Senate must agree on pilot training language, mark up its bill, pass it on the floor, and reconcile differences with the House version, which passed 351-69 on July 20. Both chambers then must pass the final version. If not, another extension looms.
“A timely, comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill is essential if we, as a nation, are to remain the global leader in aviation,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., said in a Nov. 17 op-ed in Aviation International News. “The world is watching, and so I encourage the Senate to move forward with consideration of a bill so that we can soon see a final bill enacted into law.”
The Senate FAA bill has been on ice since June, when Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., objected to language included in a bipartisan manager’s amendment just minutes before the bill’s scheduled markup. The language from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., would allow pilots-in-training to count “enhanced training,” which could include flight simulator training, toward their required 1,500 hours of in-flight experience to become a certified pilot.
Schumer is now joined by Senate Commerce Aviation Subcommittee Chair Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., in arguing Thune’s amendment would weaken pilot certification standards and could endanger passengers. Thune and amendment co-sponsor Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., say the FAA should embrace new training technologies that have proven safe.
Before leaving for Thanksgiving, Thune said in an interview that tensions are “thawing,” but added there still wasn’t a clear path forward for the bill.
“There is a need for a solution for a lot of reasons, including pilot supply, which is going to become a real crisis here in the not-so-distant future,” he said. “I’m hoping that we will see a breakthrough.”
Runway incursions, near misses
Aviation stakeholders are doubling down that lawmakers reach an agreement on the FAA reauthorization in light of the report, citing a number of provisions in both the House and Senate bills aimed at boosting air traffic controller hiring and training as well as updating FAA systems.
“The most important action Congress can take for the safety of the NAS [national airspace system] would be to pass a long term, comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill before the end of the year,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Rich Santa said at a November Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing. “Continuing to follow the same flawed controller staffing model utilized by the FAA after more than a decade of missed hiring goals and missed staffing projections will continue this downward trend. A new approach is needed.”
NATCA and the FAA in December and January convened a Collaborative Resource Workgroup to determine the proper staffing levels. The effort determined that 14,335 certified controllers are needed — significantly higher than the roughly 12,000 controllers the FAA’s current model suggests. However, Santa said the agency has yet to adopt the findings from that group.
Santa touted language in the House FAA bill that would direct the agency to make its hiring target equal to the maximum number of individuals able to be trained at the FAA Academy. Both House and Senate bills would also allow the FAA to adopt the higher workgroup levels in the interim as the agency revises its staffing goals.
Both bills would direct the FAA to expedite the implementation of its Next Generation Air Transportation System aimed at modernizing the national airspace system, with emphasis on improving air traffic control communications and navigation technologies.
That may help address the serious safety concerns in recent months.
National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said in a hearing this month that there have been 23 Category A and B — the most serious — runway incursions in fiscal 2023, up from 16 in fiscal 2022. She added that they are still “incredibly rare” but ”the trend, however, is not going in the right direction.”
The NTSB is currently investigating six near-miss incidents involving commercial airplanes. One incident in August, according to her testimony, put a Cessna business jet and a Southwest Airlines flight within 100 feet of each other at San Diego International Airport. Another near-miss in February in Sarasota, Fla., put 372 lives at risk.
The urgency is not lost on lawmakers. Reauthorization bill co-sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said in November he was “anxiously awaiting” the committee markup of the bill, and Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., added that the air traffic controller provisions in the bill are a necessity.
But even if the FAA bill clears the pilot training hurdle, there are likely to be other sticking points down the line on issues like pilot retirement age and expanding a slot and perimeter rule for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
“The dangerous rise in near-misses is a sign that our aviation system is stressed and our safety margin has narrowed,” Duckworth said in a statement. “We need to build that margin back up before today’s near-misses become tomorrow’s tragedies … I am pleased the FAA is already taking action in response to this report, but Congress needs to pass an FAA reauthorization bill that does more to help improve aviation safety.”