House T&I Uses Hearing to Urge Senate to Act on FAA Bill

On Thursday, November 30th, Chairman Garret Graves (R-LA) convened the House Aviation Subcommittee to hear invited testimony related to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization legislation which has already been passed by the chamber. The hearing, “Turbulence Ahead: Consequences of Delaying a Long-Term FAA Bill,” covered the many implications within the aviation sector of failing to implement reauthorizing legislation.  

While the hearing discussion covered challenges like funding uncertainty for airport improvements, the need for policymaking regarding emerging technologies like advanced air mobility and unmanned aerial systems, and labor and air traffic controller staffing difficulties, the true intent of the hearing was made apparent in opening comments by Chair Graves and held strong throughout the hearing, from members and witnesses alike. The Committee, and likely the greater House, is not pleased with the fact that the Senate has delayed acting upon the legislation since House passage nearly five months ago.  

Perhaps the sentiment was best captured by Rep. Steve Cohen (R-TN) in his opening comments, “The enemy is not the other party. The enemy is the Senate” – a statement which brings something of a nostalgia to those in legislative realms. Before we found ourselves in this current state of polarization between parties, this is how many (arguably most or all) legislative bodies functioned. Members were quick to note there were aspects of the reauthorization they may not have supported as stand-alone legislation, but the compromise reached in passing this legislation was effective – leading to a bill which passed the committee unanimously and the full House with a 351-69 vote.   

The hearing emphasized some of the challenges which could be exacerbated by the lack of authorizing legislation and heard testimony from the following witnesses: 

  • Mr. Pete Bunce, President and Chief Executive Officer, General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) 
  • Mr. Rich Santa, President, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) 
  • Mr. Paul Bradbury, Director, Portland International Jetport, on behalf of American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) 
  • Mr. Gary Peterson, Executive Director, Transport Workers Union (TWU) 

Between the intermittent comments about the Senate failing to do their part in passing the reauthorization, like the theory that the upper chamber may be holding “a whale of a pickleball tournament” because “they certainly aren’t getting anything done” (Mike Collins, R-GA), the committee did listen to testimony on the potential impact of the legislation, highlighting many of the positive aspects of the House-passed legislation. Conversation centered around the main elements of the House legislation, and as described by its sponsors, these include: 

  • FAA Efficiency and Operations Improvements 
  • Strengthening of the General Aviation Sector 
  • Growth for the Aviation Workforce 
  • Infrastructure Investments 
  • Encouragement of Innovation 
  • Upholding of American Safety Standards 
  • Passenger Experience Enhancement 
  • Authorization of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 

While the hearing touched on many of these issues in some manner, the primary areas of focus were program and project delivery impacts due to planning uncertainty, FAA ability to adjust to emerging technology and issue relevant rulemaking provisions, labor issues for the entire aviation attention with particular attention to air traffic controller staffing, and the maintenance of American aviation safety standards.  

 Program and Project Delivery 

 The AAAE’s representative, Paul Bradbury, spoke about the planning uncertainties which arise when facing a gap between authorization laws. For many airports in the northeast and other cold climates, there is a very small window for the construction portion of project delivery. Projects can kick off in the spring but have to be completed well in advance of winter months, and when projects hit snags and are delayed between two construction periods, the cost of these projects can double. For these airports, and other airports with longer construction periods, the lack of concrete funding can lead to hesitance in committing to projects. 

Bradbury also conveyed the airport perspective on some programs, such as the FAA’s Contract Tower Program which is a cost sharing program for private staffing of control towers, primarily impacting smaller airports. Rich Santa, with NACTA, reiterated the importance of this program and warned that delayed reauthorization or a shutdown could cause that program to stall and potentially be canceled – leading to major adverse impacts for smaller airports.   

Rulemaking for Emerging Technologies 

Bunce also repeatedly reiterated the need for a full five-year reauthorization to allow the FAA the nimbleness needed to adapt to emerging technologies. Regulatory uncertainty trickles down into agency operations, slowing the pace of training related to emerging technologies and other aviation issues. In a sector seeing the emergence of electrified, unmanned, and other advanced air mobility systems, it is critical the agency have the consistency and resources to build out a regulatory framework for these issues.  

Labor Issues and Air Traffic Controller Staffing  

Air traffic control shortages and other airport and aviation labor issues have been a major topic of conversation for policymakers and have been covered by Eno extensively. 

Santa spoke to the increasing challenges for air traffic controllers, many of whom are working 10-hour days and six-day work weeks. Santa described the growing problem of controller fatigue and inadequate staffing, stating that there are 1,000 fewer certified controllers today than there were a decade ago. And under the FAA’s current plan for air traffic controller staffing, there will actually be a net 200 fewer controllers by 2032. This legislation addresses this issue, requiring that controllers be trained and hired at the maximum staffing levels for the reauthorization’s five-year duration. Without legislation, or in the event of a lack of temporary authorization extension, controller training centers would shutdown – further exacerbating an already mounting problem.    

As far as other labor issues, Gary Peterson with TWU, a union representing various types of employees within the aviation sector, spoke to growing challenges for airport workers which are also addressed in the House legislation. Incidents of unruly behavior are on track to be up 63 percent from 2019 levels in 2023, and the sector has seen four deaths of airport ramp workers in this year alone. The legislation updates airport employee assault prevention and response plans and addresses some of the other safety challenges for workers, and without this legislation, these labor issues would also continue on their current trajectory.  

Safety in Aviation 

Members and witnesses emphasized the importance of American leadership in aviation and aviation safety standards, referring to it as the gold standard. But members and witnesses also acknowledged that the aviation sector has some major issues that need to be addressed, including issues with outdated ground surveillance technologies, a series of near misses on airport runways, ramp safety issues, and other safety challenges.  

Full committee ranking member Rick Larsen (D-WA) rattled off sections from the bill which address various safety challenges including requirements for surface surveillance technology at medium and large airports in Section 501, on board safety equipage finding in Section 221, ramp safety requirements, airport employee assault provisions, and others. In conversations with witnesses, each doubled down on the importance of the work the house had done and within Larsen’s Q&A with witnesses, Santa mentioned to him that in thinking about how a Senate version could look, “[they] want what is in the House bill.” 

While the hearing covered the House legislation and related issues, the hopefulness amongst members was certainly to increase pressure on the Senate to get an authorization passed. The House was lauded for the bipartisan effort, and witnesses commended the actions embedded within the bill for the impacts they will have on the aviation sector – ranging from much needed safety improvements to addressing the long-standing challenges in staffing for air traffic controllers.  

 

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