House Aviation Panel Grills New FAA Chief

On Tuesday, February 6, the Aviation Subcommittee under the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing to explore the state of American aviation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The hearing’s single witness was the recently confirmed (October 2023) FAA Administrator. Click the link below to view his written testimony: 

  • The Honorable Michael Whitaker, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration, United States Department of Transportation 

An FAA reauthorization bill passed the House in July of 2023 (The Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act), in what many on the committee characterized as an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner. The Senate, as of the hearing Tuesday, had not yet resumed its abortive June 2023 markup of its own bill (though they were able to resume, and agree on a bill, in committee the day after the House hearing). In addition to the importance of the swift passage of a reauthorization bill in both chambers, the Administrator discussed a wide range of aviation topics, including significant safety events, air traffic controller hiring, continuous safety improvements, recent Boeing production concerns, beyond visual line of sight operations, the use of airport property to house foreign nationals, and the number of flights allowed each day into Washington National Airport in Arlington, VA. 

Significant Safety Events 

There has been no shortage of news reports of close calls, runway incursions, and other safety-related events in U.S. airspace and at U.S. airports over the past year. Whitaker indicated that the FAA tasked an independent safety review team to investigate these issues, which provided a report to the FAA in November 2023. Many of these recommendations, including better data analytics, better pilot and controller outreach, and better airport signage have already begun to be implemented. The FAA is also accelerating the implementation of airport improvement funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law totaling more than $1 billion for safety enhancements.  

Boeing 737 MAX 9 Incident 

On January 5, 2024, a plug door on a Boeing 737 MAX 9 (Alaska Airlines flight 1282) blew out, necessitating an emergency landing. While the incident did not result in any severe injuries, the following day the FAA issued an airworthiness directive grounding all MAX 9 aircraft with the door plug configuration. An NTSB investigation is ongoing, and to date inspections have revealed unacceptable quality control at Boeing. In response, the FAA is taking the following oversight measures: 

  • increasing oversight activities by capping new 737 MAX production until compliance with required quality control procedures is verified,  
  • launching an investigation scrutinizing Boeing’s compliance with manufacturing requirements,  
  • increasing inspector floor presence at Boeing facilities,  
  • monitoring data to identify and mitigate significant safety trends and risks, and 
  • launching analysis of potential safety-focused reforms around quality control delegation.  

As required by the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act of 2020—which was passed in response to the crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in 2018 and 2019 — a Boeing Safety Culture Report is being conducted, which will be submitted to the FAA  within a month. The Safety Management Systems (SMS) required by the bill have also been rolled out and confidential whistleblower reports for quality and safety concerns can be submitted on the FAA website.  

Air Traffic Controller Hiring 

The United States has been experiencing an air traffic controller shortage, which has increased controller stress and aircraft delays across the country. This issue has been covered in depth in previous hearings and Eno reporting. To maintain and improve the high level of safety in U.S. airspace, the FAA must accelerate the pace of air traffic controller recruiting, hiring, and training. The FAA has taken immediate steps to increase the controller workforce, including: 

  • Filling every seat at the controller academy in Oklahoma City, 
  • Expanding the use of advanced training facilities across the country including upgrading simulators at 95 towers, 
  • Working with aeronautical colleges to move graduates quickly into on-the-job training, and 
  • Initiating year-round hiring of experienced controllers from the military and private industry (previously, hiring was not on a rolling basis and happened once every six months). 

Additionally, conversations Whitaker had with controllers in Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, and DC, identified controller fatigue as a major concern. In Response, the FAA established a panel of fatigue experts to study the issue. The Panel will examine how the latest science on sleep needs and fatigue considerations could be applied to controller work requirements and scheduling. The report is expected later this spring.  

Continuous Safety Improvements 

Other improvements are being made to increase safety. For example, the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service (AOV) now reports directly to the Administrator to ensure safety concerns are quickly and rapidly elevated. Whitaker also chartered the Mental Health and Medical Clearances Aviation Rulemaking Committee which will provide a forum for discussion that culminates into recommendations that break down the barriers that prevent pilots and air traffic controllers from reporting and seeking care for mental health issues. The report is expected this spring.  

Beyond Visual Line of Sight Operations 

While drone technologies have already been deployed in the United States, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations are critical to the expansion of these technologies. Multiple subcommittee members asked Whitaker about the progress on BVLOS regulation. A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is expected later this fall, but many are concerned that the slow movement on these regulations has created uncertainty that is stifling operator innovation and investment in the United States.  

Pilot Retirement Age 

The current retirement age for commercial airline pilots is 65. A House contingent would like to see that raised to 67. Representative Troy Nehls (R-TX) pointed to rules in other countries such as New Zealand and Canada that allow commercial pilots to fly past the age of 65. Whitaker asserted that the FAA has no official stance on retirement age but has a responsibility to ensure an increase does not jeopardize safety. Whitaker expressed concern about a lack of data to support raising the age, as well as concern about international compliance. (The Senate committee narrowly rejected an amendment to raise the age to 67 the following day, 13 yeas to 14 nays, after Administrator Whitaker’s specific denial that the FAA had taken a position on the issue was cited repeatedly in the Senate debate.)

Housing Foreign Nationals on Airport Property 

An issue of importance to many of the Republican lawmakers on the subcommittee was the housing of foreign nationals on airport property. Representative Scott Perry (R-PA) pointed out the trend, which has seen airports in Chicago, Boston, and New York being used to house migrants in large cities. Perry noted that the FAA is required to approve requests to use Airport property for non-aeronautical purposes. Whitaker indicated that one request has been approved (for O’Hare Airport) and assured that these requests are not approved if they affect airport safety. Applications are only necessary when they affect airside operations/property (the secure zone beyond security), which was only the case at one airport. Representative Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) reminded his colleagues that the FAA regulates airside safety only and suggested that instead of peppering Whitaker with questions outside of his purview they ask Speaker of the House Mike Johnson for answers on immigration.  

DCA Flight Restrictions 

Representative Burgess Owens (R-UT) asked if additional flight slots could safely be added at Washington National Airport (DCA), pointing to an internal FAA Memo that indicated it could do so. Whitaker assured that the FAA would not allow added flights if it impacted safe operations. Additional flights out of DCA could, however, negatively decrease efficiency. Notably, Owens’s home state contains a large Delta Airlines Hub. Delta is part of the Capital Access Alliance that is pushing Congress to increase the number of flights allowed into DCA.  (They had victory in the Senate committee the following day, when the panel adopted a Warnock (D-GA) amendment increasing the number of round-trip flights in and out of DCA by 5 per day.)

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