"Strong Partnership As We Face the Challenges Ahead"
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
May 20, 2013

NATCA Legislative Conference


Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thanks, Paul [Rinaldi].  I want to thank you and Trish for your leadership, as we deal with the challenges with respect to the sequester.  We appreciate the strong partnership we have with NATCA … and I very much look forward to continuing to work together in the days and months, and years ahead. 

I also want to acknowledge and thank everyone here for the great job that you do.  NATCA represents many of our employees.  It’s not just air traffic controllers.  It’s architects and engineers, as well as staff support, technical, and flight procedure specialists.  Due to your efforts, and those of your colleagues throughout the agency, we at the FAA can proudly say we run the safest, most efficient air traffic system in the world.  Our intention is to keep it that way. 

To do so, I’ve stressed three priorities for the FAA.  You’ve heard me talk about them.  The first is to make aviation safer and smarter.  We’re doing it through a more sophisticated safety data and analysis process.  Because of your ATSAP reports, we’ve made nearly 200 safety corrections to the system since the program began five years ago. 

Through voluntary safety reporting, along with automated data gathering toolslike CEDAR, we’ve collected close to a million safety-related reports from all sources. 

Now we’re exchanging information with the airlines and the National Transportation Safety Board through the ASIAS program.  Through the Confidential Information Sharing Program, or CISP, we’ve already exchanged over 8,700 safety reports with 12 airline partners.  Through these partnerships with labor and industry, we will continue to identify, and more importantly, fix more safety issues than any single program could.    

Because of these efforts, and many others, we took home this year’s prestigious IHS Jane’s ATC Award for our proactive safety management system.  Our win shows how far we’ve come in reaching the next level of safety … and shows why we play a lead role in global aviation.

The second priority you’ve heard me talk about is to accelerate the benefits of technology into the public domain.  And the third priority is to empower you, our employees.  You know the system best and we need your full engagement. 

These last two areas have gone hand in hand when it comes to air traffic modernization.  Through collaboration with all of you at NATCA, and with your subject matter expertise, we’ve made great progress with the implementation of ERAM and those lessons learned are being applied to TAMR as well.  We’re also making great progress with Performance-based Navigation procedures and other programs as part of our transition to NextGen.

Take ERAM.  We’ve benefited by having a national user team led by a labor and management counterpart from each of our en route centers.  And through the ERAM Steering Committee meetings, centers that have successfully deployed ERAM have passed on the lessons learned to the centers whose deployments are coming up.  Personally, I think it’s a great process, and with it, we’ve come a long way in the past 16 months.  To date, we have 11 out of 20 en route centers using ERAM on a daily basis, and another five have reached initial operating capability. 

We’re also seeing the benefits of FAA-NATCA teamwork in our metroplex initiatives, through which we’re making better use of congested airspace around the nation’s busiest metropolitan areas, reducing fuel consumption and lessening aviation’s carbon footprint on the environment.

For example, last August, flights approaching the Washington DC area started using satellite routes and immediately began saving fuel and emissions. For the airlines, these new routes will save $2.3 million in fuel costs in the first year of operation.  We estimate that about 60,000 flights are using these new procedures into Dulles each year.  At National, about 57,000 flights are flying the new routes each year.

And through Performance Based Navigation, we’re deconflicting traffic at busy adjacent airports like Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway.  Over the past two years, we’ve made better use of this congested airspace by publishing a satellite-based procedure used by RNP-equipped aircraft when they’re flying into Midway.  This procedure has allowed O’Hare to improve its arrival rate by eight to 12 aircraft per hour when the ceilings are low.  That’s huge.  And aircraft flying into Midway travel fewer miles and save fuel, also very important.

We’re also continuing to make progress with our Data Communications trials in Memphis and Newark airports.  As part of the Memphis trial, we’ve moved from using the tool for “cleared as filed” procedures to processing amended routes for flights.  By sending and receive digital instructions to and from pilots, we’ll be able to increase overall system efficiency, while reducing the likelihood of hearback and readback errors. 

These are just some examples of how the collaborative process is helping to implement NextGen.  And how NextGen is helping to deliver more on-time flights, reduce fuel burn and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

This is an approach that works.  And when you have the kind of professional and constructive relationship we have, you need to keep it going.  I’m personally very committed to it. 

But as you all know, things aren’t perfect when we look to the future.  The sequester poses a major challenge to the entire agency, including to the collaborative efforts that have been so instrumental to our modernization.  It challenges our effort to deliver greater benefits to the flying public as soon as we would like.   

As air traffic delays mounted last month, the nation saw exactly why the sequester, as designed, is flawed public policy … and Congress decided to give us the financial flexibility to cancel the furloughs for the remainder of the fiscal year.  With this flexibility, we’re also able to keep the 149 low activity towers open through September 30.  And we’re putting $10 million towards NextGen, to reduce cuts and delays in core programs; and $11 million to maintain equipment and infrastructure that is so necessary for the system. 

But the fix is just a Band-Aid.  It only lasts until the end of the fiscal year.  It doesn’t address the long term fiscal challenge we have.  Although the furloughs have been cancelled, the sequester continues … and we still have to cut $637 million.  Yes, we were able to transfer $253 million from a source previously off limits, the airport grant program.  But we still have to cut $384 million from other areas by September 30.  This means we have to maintain cuts in areas like staffing, hiring, awards, contracts, training, and travel.  

We’ve also cut our spare parts inventory, which may increase restoration time during outages and reduce system efficiency.  We may have to postpone technology and procedural deployments that were slated for completion this year.  And with the Academy shut down, we’re not conducting trainings and getting people certified to maintain and operate new technologies.   

Looking ahead to FY2014, the budget situation is still very uncertain.  President Obama has proposed a workable solution to our nation’s budget challenge and the FAA’s 2014 budget request of $15.6 billion is part of that.  This budget request supports our critical safety programs, modernizes our aviation infrastructure, and strikes a balance between maintaining current infrastructure while deploying key NextGen programs to support the growth and changes in aviation.  It does all this at funding levels that are $351 million lower than FY 2012.  This is a 2.2 percent decrease, which is part of the President’s effort to reduce the deficit.

What’s going to happen between now and the first of October?  We don’t know.  Congress has taken care of this situation until the end of the fiscal year, but two more things have to be dealt with.  First, unless the sequester is permanently fixed, it will last for ten years.  Congress must cancel it and give us the funding certainty that will enable us to properly plan our future activities as an agency.

Second, we need an appropriations act for FY14.  We’ve been running on a continuing resolution for FY13.  Under this situation, it’s hard to have a thoughtful discussion about how to move forward.  Unless all of these things are dealt with, we’re going to be dealing with a very uncertain environment.

Against this backdrop, I want to thank everyone for their patience and professionalism as we continue to deal with what is an extremely difficult fiscal issue.  I hope the sequester is resolved as quickly as possible.  If it remains in effect, the FAA may be required to cut even more next year than we did this year.  While we can hope for the best, because of the financial uncertainty, we have to plan for the worst.  As you and I both know, that’s not a sustainable course of action … and it’s no way to run a government.  In either case, the FAA remains committed to working closely with NATCA as we face the challenges ahead. 

 

###