House FAA Hearing Examines NextGen, Drone Issues

March 5, 2015

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is continuing to raise awareness of the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill – the current authorization expires in September. On Tuesday, March 3, the committee invited FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to testify on FAA reauthorization.

Aviation subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) opened the hearing, highlighting the major areas that the committee is looking to address in reauthorization: how to accelerate the NextGen air traffic control modernization and how to effectively and safely promote the growth of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). In his opening statement, full committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) said, “I hope we can start a maybe more intense debate about how we do significant air traffic reform.” He suggested that it was time to talk about what other countries have done to “increase the efficiency of their air traffic control systems and separate them from political processes that have created instability in our own system.”

In Huerta’s opening statement, he noted that, “we have competing priorities among our stakeholders, one of the byproducts of a healthy and diverse system.” He urged Congress to use the upcoming reauthorization to give FAA the tools it needs to be successful. In reference to NextGen, Huerta acknowledged that FAA needs to continue the modernization process and that part of that effort is ensuring a reliable, long-term stream of funding. (Revenue stability and predictability has long been a priority of the FAA, particularly in the wake of the 2013 budget sequester and government shutdown, both of which resulted in furloughs for air traffic controllers.) Huerta concluded his opening statement by saying that FAA needs to realign the airspace system to keep pace with new demands and that the United States needs to maintain its position of aviation leadership.

Subcommittee chairman LoBiondo opened the questioning by alleging “a disconnect between what government auditors are saying and what the FAA is saying. FAA is saying NextGen is on time and auditors are saying little benefits and slow implementation.” The administrator responded, “NextGen is very complex, we’ve been focused on ADS-B and the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) platform.” ADS-B is a technology that allows aircraft to determine their position via satellite navigation, and ERAM route is a new computer system upon which NextGen capabilities will be implemented. (Ed Note: ERAM will replace the 40-year Host Computer System that since the 1970’s has controlled high-altitude traffic in the United States, as explained in detail in the March 2015 issue of Wired magazine. Although highly dependable and responsible for the high levels of safety we have achieved, Host can handle limited amounts of traffic and controllers can only see what is happening on their assigned airspace. Host is also vulnerable to point failures, like the recent Chicago file.) Huerta highlighted that ADS-B has been delivered on time and while ERAM delivery has been delayed, they are continuing to work. He also noted that FAA is working with stakeholders to deliver specific measures expediently. He concluded saying, “it has taken many years, but we are delivering benefits, and we are delivering them now.”

Subcommittee ranking member Rick Larsen (D-WA) asked, “On UAS, there is backlog of section 333 exemptions… what is your opinion of using a programmatic approach?” (Section 333 “grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for UAS to operate safely in the National Airspace System.” Currently, applications must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to be granted legal entry into the NAS.) The programmatic approach that Rep. Larsen referred to would allow exemptions to be made for groups of UAS; an example would be that all UAS for the use of wedding photography could be granted an exemption without going through a case-by-case application process, where each individual wedding photographer has to get a license. Huerta responded that FAA is looking into ways to streamline the process and urged Congress to give the FAA more flexibility in this regard.

Shuster said, “One of the things I learned over the last week or so was Verizon, which does a lot of the same things as you… they’ve replaced their system four times within the last ten years… We’ve been talking about NextGen for 25 years.” He then asked Huerta whether or not it was time to talk about significant air traffic control governance reform. Huerta responded that the FAA needs to maintain the safety of our system and that we need to be cautious to ensure that there are no unintended consequences. He noted that the technology systems that FAA is responsible for are fundamentally different than Verizon, and that the FAA’s principle purpose is to ensure that the system is safe, reliable, and efficient, while Verizon has fewer constraints. (Ed. Note: Losing your cell service for 60 seconds rarely results in an accident that costs hundreds of lives, but losing ATC contact for the wrong 60 seconds easily could.)

Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR), the ranking minority member on the full committee, brought up the GAO report that was released this week titled, “Information Security: FAA Needs to Address Weaknesses in Air Traffic Control Systems.” The report found that, “significant security control weaknesses remain [in FAA air traffic control systems], threatening the agency’s ability to ensure the safe and uninterrupted operations of the national airspace system.” Huerta responded, “first and foremost the system is safe. GAO acknowledged in their report that the agency has made significant progress… I am very actively focused on the recommendations and we’ve remediated a [lot] of the technology recommendations already.”

Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN) and Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN) both questioned whether or not it was time to raise the passenger facility charge (which since 2000 has been capped at $4.50 per flight, $18 round trip) and to rethink the Airport Improvement Program. Huerta referred to the Congressmen to the Administration’s proposal, which suggests raising the PFC to $8.00 per flight but which would also throw the largest hub airports out of the Airport Improvement Program. (Ed. Note: It was the Evansville, Indiana airport that invented the PFC’s “head tax” antecedent back in the late 1960s.)

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