Michael Huerta, Washington, D.C.
October 24, 2013
Thank you, Pete (Dumont), for that introduction. It’s great to be here today.
I’m not a superstitious man, but I have to say “13” is not my favorite number. And I am very glad that this year, which ends in the number “13,” is almost coming to an end…(pause)
And, I never realized how long 16 days could be. Last week, more than 12,000 furloughed FAA employees came back on the job, and the agency is gearing back up. It will take time to assess the backlog of work that developed during the shutdown. NextGen work was stopped or reduced. We issued about a thousand stop-work orders on contracts, which we have rescinded now.
This was a very challenging time, but I can tell you that we worked through this as best we possibly could. A shutdown is inherently an inefficient process and frankly I don’t want us to get good at it.
FAA employees spent countless hours planning the 2013 furloughs, the sequester budget and the shutdown. Our energy needs to be spent running and improving the largest and safest aviation system in the world. As always, safety is our top priority and as we resume work we will reflect that commitment.
It’s hard to push the “pause” button on a complicated and wide scale operational agency like the FAA. Suddenly speeding it up or slowing it down – either direction – is extraordinarily disruptive. We operate most efficiently and effectively under conditions of certainty. It’s what we need in order to carry out our mission.
Right now, we are finding ourselves in the middle of the aftermath of the recurring conflict over the fiscal course of the country, and the larger question of what do Americans want from their government and what role should government play in their everyday lives?
And we are seeing the result – gridlock, denial of government services and economic disruption.
Last week, Congress was able to reach agreement on a short-term continuing resolution and an increase in the debt ceiling. While welcome news, it is not the final resolution of the debate that has consumed Washington, and the nation as a whole, over the past few months.
The multi-week shutdown has reminded many Americans of how integral government is in our everyday society. Whether it’s the closure of national parks, cessation of critical medical research, or the certification and registration of new aircraft – the impact of removing government from the equation touches every economic bracket and every community across the country.
Aviation and aerospace hold a special place in American consciousness and are a symbol of American innovation. Aviation was invented here. It was 110 years ago that the Wright Brothers completed their first flight at Kitty Hawk. Since then, aviation has grown to be our largest export industry. It accounts for $1.3 trillion in economic activity and 10 million U.S. jobs. And aviation has done so much to tie our country together, linking thousands of runways, landing strips and terminals, in major cities and our rural areas. Air transportation has allowed us to unify America in a way that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago.
And the next 100 years will bring advances that we can’t even imagine now. While aviation is unquestionably an example of innovation, it’s also an example of collaboration between government and industry. This collaboration has enabled us to achieve a position of international leadership. The U.S. is held up as the “gold standard” for aviation safety, efficiency and technology.
And we need to keep it that way.
The aviation industry needs efficient regulation and certification to bring new products to market in a timely and competitive way.
The industry needs government to participate in building infrastructure, like NextGen, that benefits the nation and moves us forward.
It needs government to tackle long-range planning and solve the big problems that individual companies cannot possibly tackle on their own.
It was not that long ago that we all came together during the reauthorization of the FAA and recognized that the work we do is vitally important to our nation and to our economy. We need to join together again now and vocally support and work on the priorities that we have established.
We need government and industry working together. That is how we are going to overcome the challenges that face us. One of us can’t do it without the other.
If these last few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that we can’t do everything as individuals.
For example, we want and need government to do things like ensuring we have clean water and safe food. We want our government to ensure that our aviation system is safe. That aircraft and equipment meet the highest standards of safety—and that the men and women who control air traffic, fly airplanes and run our system are properly trained and qualified. We want and need our government to provide the framework and investment to create the infrastructure to allow the continued growth and innovation of the American Aviation sector.
Finally, we want government to do everything it can to ensure that we have a strong economy – one that generates jobs and is a global leader. Toward this end, government’s role in aviation – in collaboration with industry – is critical.
Let me be clear – I am not saying that the government should do everything, and I firmly believe that there are many things that the government should not do at all. What I am saying is that there are things that we do look to government to enable, to support and to lead.
Funding for the government needs to happen in a predictable and reliable way so that we can consistently work towards the greater good. Short-term, stop-gap funding is no way to run a government or an aviation system.
I think one of the biggest questions that our industry has to come together to answer is, what kind of an aviation system do we want? We need to think comprehensively about what we want to provide and how we provide the support for it.
Our industry has many segments and interest areas. Each segment promotes the parts of the system that are most important to its constituency, of course. But what we have seen earlier this year with the sequester and what we have seen in the last few weeks with the shutdown, is that we need to have a comprehensive view of our priorities and also stable funding.
- We must move forward with delivering the benefits of NextGen.
- We have to certify new aircraft and introduce new users into our airspace such as unmanned aircraft systems and commercial space launches – areas where America can, and should lead.
- We know that we need to constantly raise the bar on safety and the way to do that is to be smarter about how we ensure safety and use the wealth of data that is available to us.
- We need to work on improving safety and sustainability across the globe. This is both for the benefit of Americans who fly overseas and for the economic benefits of having a robust aviation industry that provides a level playing field to compete on the global stage. We need to maintain America’s place as the premiere aviation leader.
- Finally, we need to recruit and train our workforce to adapt to the innovation that we’re seeing in the industry and to forge the way towards the aerospace system of the future.
These are broad priorities which I think we can agree on. The details of exactly how we get there is something that we need to work through. The FAA has traditionally provided a variety of services to our airspace users in addition to air traffic control. We provide flight plans, weather briefings, updated navigation charts, aircraft certification and pilot certificates. We are increasingly being asked to do more with less. We have an aviation trust fund, but this trust fund only covers about two-thirds of our budget. I think we need to ask ourselves – and ask you, our stakeholders –whether we really want to, and need to, do everything the way we’ve always done it. What should industry and the public expect the FAA to provide? Are there reasonable changes we can make to align with our future vision of the industry?
One thing I think is vitally important is for the aviation industry to start having serious conversations about the structure of our aviation system, as well as the way to fund it. In the past, we have had debates over how to fund our system. I have heard from many of you that these discussions, which have historically been difficult are starting to happen. And that’s significant.
The continuing resolution provides a fresh start and the possibility of a fresh budget agreement to move forward. I certainly hope it lays the groundwork for a broader budget deal in the future. I’m also encouraged that the continuing resolution provides the FAA with an annual rate of $100 million more than last year’s budget. It’s an acknowledgement that the cuts we are facing have serious consequences on both the FAA workforce and the sustainability of the system.
That being said, the FAA still must cut hundreds of millions of dollars this year under the sequester. We are operating at historically low levels of funding and the continuing resolution just keeps us at these reduced levels.
In addition, we are facing a $5 billion backlog in deferred maintenance of the facilities and equipment we use to run our national airspace system.
In this extremely difficult financial environment, we’re going to have to prioritize. We can’t keep doing minimal across-the-board maintenance. We’re going to have to have a thoughtful conversation about what it makes sense for the FAA to continue doing, and what we might be able to stop doing, or do differently.
And that conversation needs to involve all of us. We must come together to decide what kind of system we want and need.
Aviation has always been about innovation and boldly trying new ways of doing things. That’s what has made the industry grow and prosper. This willingness to seek new solutions is what turned two bicycle mechanics from Ohio into the world’s first pilots. It’s what put a man on the moon, and it’s what is going to create another 100 years of breakthroughs in aviation.
As we move forward, the question is, are we really going to address the important issues we need to face and are we going to forge a new future, or, are we going to hold back and wait for something to happen? I don’t think any of us want to wait and we should not. Instead, we need to look at the big picture. Our industry, our advancement, our priorities are too important to sit back. We must take hold of the reins and take charge.
If we do that, I’m optimistic that today’s gridlock will not be here to stay.