House Prepares to Take Off with FAA Reauthorization

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) five-year reauthorization bill into law in a private Oval Office ceremony. The Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a public hearing on March 23 in preparation for providing funding levels and operating authority for the FAA, once again.

The hearing, entitled “FAA Reauthorization: Navigating the Comprehensive Passenger Experience,”

featured the following four witnesses who testified and answered questions from the members.

  • Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President, Legislative and Regulatory Policy Airlines for America
  • Kevin Dolliole, Director of Aviation, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport on behalf of theAirports Council International – North America
  • Rich Santa, President, National Air Traffic Controllers Association
  • Lee Page, Senior Associate Advocacy Director, Paralyzed Veterans of America

The 2018 reauthorization included numerous directives such as a ban on passengers using e-cigarettes, talking on cell phones, and storing their pets in overhead bins. Likewise, the last reauthorization required the FAA to establish minimum seat sizes and issue rules regarding service animals.

This year’s subcommittee chair, Garret Graves (R-LA), is not calling for a broad range of mandates. “Look,” he said, “airlines are a deregulated industry and consumers have choice. It’s our job to help to preserve the choice that consumers have and ensure that passengers can choose between the various airlines, airports, and options.”

Graves wanted the hearing to focus on the entire passenger experience from arriving at the airport to reaching their destination. “We have an obligation to ensure that the government’s role in this – pre-check, TSA, security, and air traffic control experience – advances in technology and conveniences just as much as every other sector. Otherwise, that one weak link in the chain is going to cause an adverse experience in air travel.”

Although no airline passenger organization representative testified, the congressmen were intimately familiar with the passenger experience. After all, most of them are frequent fliers; for example Greg Stanton (D-AZ) said he typically flies twice a week.

The members referred to very specific concerns. For example, Congressman Lance Gooden (R-TX) mentioned annoying advertisements on planes that promote credit cards. Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) was concerned that hearing impaired passengers might not be aware of flight announcements, while Rep. Aaron Bean (R-FL) referred to turbulence and Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) talked about baggage retrieval. Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-MI), a mother of two sons, talked about the difficulties of flying with young children.

Rep. Pete Stauber (R-MN) talked about the challenges flying with his son who has Down’s Syndrome and Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) referred to legislation she sponsored that will ensure that airports and new airplanes better accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.

Sharon Pinkerton, representing the country’s leading airlines, was on the hotseat. In response to complaints about airline fares, she noted that (after adjusting for inflation) current fares are now less than half of what they were in 1979 and almost 7 percent below 2019 levels. She said the airline industry offers consumers more choices than ever before.

Pinkerton deflected complaints about delays by saying that that U.S. airlines are doing everything possible to make improvements, but there are many factors beyond their control including extreme weather, air traffic control staffing issues, and increased commercial space launches. Last year, she noted that 62 percent of flight cancellations were caused by weather conditions.

She warned that the FAA is on the precipice of being overwhelmed, if they are not already. As part of the FAA reauthorization, she said that Congress must “address the air traffic controller shortage and ensure that safety technologies are fielded in the right places.” The pace of change will only accelerate, she noted. Pinkerton also urged Congress to increase FAA’s capital budget because it has not kept up with inflation.

Kevin Dolliole, representing U.S. airports, noted that last year, airports submitted nearly $25 billion worth of projects funded by the federal Airport Terminal Program, but only $1 billion was available. Much of those funds, he indicated, are used to enhance accessibility and ADA compliance.

The airport official said, “Airports want passengers to have a positive experience when traveling, but it is challenging to provide such an experience when airports have insufficient funding to build, maintain, and adapt their facilities.” He said passengers often get frustrated because many airports were not built to accommodate modern security checkpoints.

Calling for additional funds in a reauthorization bill, Dolliole warned that the existing airport infrastructure cannot accommodate expected growth. He listed numerous improvements that passengers want such as online parking reservation systems, co-working spaces, vision impaired wayfinding, lactation rooms, and more electrical charging stations.

Rich Santa, representing nearly 20,000 air traffic controllers, engineers, and other aviation safety-related professionals, said the nation’s aviation system continues to be hampered by funding instability. Funding, he said, has “failed to keep up with inflation, account for controller staffing attrition, and keep pace with the changing needs of the agency regarding modernization and infrastructure programs.”

Santa said “Without a stable and sufficient funding stream, the FAA will be hard-pressed to maintain capacity, let alone modernize the physical and technological infrastructure of the system while expanding it for new users such as uncrewed aircraft systems, advanced air mobility systems, commercial space launches, and supersonic aircraft.”

He shared the graph below and told the subcommittee members that the number of fully certified air traffic controllers remains near a 30-year low. Hiring more trainees in the short term, he said, will not immediately solve this staffing crisis because it takes one to three years of on-the-job training for controllers to become fully certified after graduating from the FAA’s training academy in Oklahoma City.

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