Senate Commerce Examines FAA Reauthorization, Potential ATC Restructuring

April 16, 2015

On Tuesday, April 14, Senate Commerce held a full committee hearing on Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization. The current FAA authorization law will expire on September 30, just 24 weeks from today. This was Commerce’s first hearing of the year exploring the subject.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta testified, highlighting FAA’s recent accomplishments in moving forward with NextGen air traffic control modernization. According to Huerta, “[FAA has] completed [their] new high altitude air traffic control system- known as… ERAM, or En Route Automation Modernization, is not just a faster computer system, it’s a network that replaces our legacy system, which has roots in the 1960s.”

Acknowledging the ongoing conversation that has been occurring in the House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing room, as well as amongst stakeholders through the FAA Management Advisory Committee, the Business Roundtable, and the Eno NextGen Working Group, Huerta commented, “there is talk about restructuring the FAA as part of this reauthorization. I am all for having that discussion, but the discussion needs to be based on facts. We need to be sure that any governance changes would work to solve the challenges faced by the FAA.”

Chairman John Thune (R-SD) pushed Huerta on that issue. He reiterated the successes that FAA has had with NextGen implementation and underscored that “as we look to the longer term… it is important to ask what exactly the problem is we are trying to solve.” Huerta also noted that in order ensure that we are delivering technology benefits associated with NextGen, while maintaining safety, there needs to be a tight relationship between the air traffic control operator and the safety regulator, which he suggested may be compromised if a new governance model were to increase distance between those two functions.

(The problem is three fold. First, the FAA has had an unstable funding stream due to tight budget caps and events like the 2013 budget sequestration and partial government shutdown. Second, while the FAA has made strides in NextGen implementation, its deployment has not been expedient due to governmental procurement rules and regulations, as well as the aforementioned unstable funding streams. And third, the International Civil Aviation Organization recommends that there should be an “arm’s length” relationship between the ATC operator and the regulator – but the FAA currently serves in both functions.)

Thune also questioned the status of the “long-awaited” pilot records database. Huerta noted that it is an “incredibly complex undertaking because it is a very extensive set of records as well as a very extensive set of technology solutions that we need to look at to ensure that we can do this efficiently to be effective.”

Senators Jerry Moran (KS-R) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) each asked about how the FAA is working to streamline the aircraft certification process. Huerta commented that the FAA has completed 10 of its 14 aircraft certification initiatives as outlined by GAO. He also noted that FAA is attempting to implement a “risk based approach,” which means identifying the riskiest parts of certification and ensuring that FAA directly handles certification for those components, and then delegating other certification activities to entities with Organization Designation Authorizations (ODAs).

A number of Senators expressed interest in learning how to receive more funding through the Airport Improvement Program, as well as how to ensure that small communities and general aviation “get their piece” in the next reauthorization.

In Thune’s final questioning, he asked Huerta if the FAA had evaluated options for a path to move forward with ATC reform. Huerta reiterated that it was important to make sure that we need to know what problem we are trying to solve, and again highlighted the progress that FAA has made on NextGen. Thune concluded that he would like to continue the discussion of ATC reform with Huerta and the FAA.

Senior members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee have made it clear that they are interested in systemic ATC governance reform. While Senate Commerce leaders have not articulated their support as clearly, members of the committee appear to be exploring options.

A full video of the hearing can be viewed here.

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