"Building a Bright Future Together"
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
May 19, 2014

NATCA Annual Legislative Conference

Thank you, Paul [Rinaldi].  I’d like to welcome everyone to Washington for your annual legislative conference.  You are here at an important time. I bring greetings from Secretary Foxx who is sorry he couldn’t be here today.  He very much values the good relationship we have with NATCA.  Right now, much of his focus is on funding for surface transportation – highways … bridges … and railways. 

But next year, air transportation will be the focus … as the FAA will be up for reauthorization.  And as we prepare for reauthorization, we very much need to think about all of the changes taking place in aviation … and how the FAA should be prepared to handle those changes.  How should the agency be structured?  What services should we provide?  And what skills does our current workforce need to handle the changes ahead?  As we prepare for the road ahead, it’s useful to pause and note an historic milestone we’re celebrating this week. 

This Wednesday marks the 56th anniversary of some very important legislation.  On May 21, 1958, U.S. Senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma introduced a bill to create an independent Federal Aviation Agency.  Later that year his legislation became a reality.  Since then, the FAA has been steadfast in its core mission to ensure the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world. 

As aviation grew and changed, we’ve had to continually evolve.  In the 1920s, the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce ensured safety, but also promoted the aviation industry, a dual mission that the FAA would continue to have until the 1990s.

In the 1930s, the Civil Aeronautics Authority was responsible for rulemaking, but also accident investigation.  That latter responsibility was transferred to the National Transportation Safety Board in the 1960s.  In 1967, Department of Transportation was formed and we became one of several modes that work to make America’s infrastructure safe and efficient.  

We’re now at another pivotal moment in aviation history where we are witnessing a variety of changes.   

The industry is becoming more globalized.  Air traffic providers are moving from radar-based to satellite-based air traffic systems.  As we build NextGen, we also have to think about sustaining critical parts of our existing infrastructure, much of which is aging.  New users are entering our airspace – unmanned vehicles and commercial space launches. And we’re seeing a generational turnover among our workforce.       

We have to address all of these changes in a budget environment with a great degree of uncertainty.  From sequester to government shutdown, we endured a great deal of disruption.  I thank all of you for your hard work during these tough times to keep the NAS safe and efficient.

Thankfully in December, Congress passed a two-year budget, which provides us with some degree of certainty and temporarily avoids the cuts we would have had to make under the sequester.  But unless there’s another fix, the sequester will be with us again in 2016.

The budget uncertainty has prompted a lot of discussion about how best to provide certainty for the FAA in the future.  Many of those discussions surround whether or not there should be changes to the structure of the Air Traffic Organization.  Many have asked whether it makes sense to privatize that function and support it with a funding structure that is more stable. 

I believe we need to step back from the question to ask a more fundamental one – exactly what are we trying to solve?  Is it that the FAA needs funding certainty?  Is it that the FAA needs to re-scope the services that we provide?

I believe that once we have determined what we are trying to fix – if there’s a need to change – structures and policy will follow.

In terms of services that the FAA provides, many are fundamental to our mission.  We depend on all of you to maintain the safety and efficiency of our system each and every day, and you do that by keeping your eyes on the skies.  We certify new aircraft, and continue our efforts to collect safety data to identify and mitigate risk.  We deliver prioritized NextGen benefits, keeping our eye to our role as a global leader in aviation.  And, we recruit and train the next generation of our workforce for the future. 

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 to prioritize our work, knowing that we cannot continue to provide all of the services we have in the past.  We’re having a robust discussion with our stakeholders about what we might be able to consider to stop doing, or do differently, through innovative business methods and technologies.    

The aviation community is diverse … and does not always see eye-to-eye.  Nevertheless, we have to build a consensus on the direction we’re going.  I believe that consensus around the future direction of the FAA is absolutely critical if we are going to resolve our long term funding challenges.

To that end, I have asked the agency’s Management Advisory Committee to help us answer these questions and provide us with recommendations.  The MAC, as we call it, is made up of 13 members from industry, labor and government.  They have spent a lot of time gathering the input of our stakeholders and bringing their views to the table. 

I’m proud to say that Paul Rinaldi is a member and has been one of the key leaders working directly with the industry to take its pulse on many of the issues I’ve addressed and questions that I’ve raised.  His perspective is essential to the work we are doing.  Having him at the table – and by extension all of you – is crucial as we set the future direction of the FAA. You are absolutely  fundamental to what we do as an agency.  I deeply appreciate Paul’s perspective and his active participation in the MAC activities.  

Now, these long term strategic questions about structure, budget and services are ones that the FAA and NATCA can, should, and will address together, as we look ahead to next year’s reauthorization. 

We’re in a great position to have these conversations and build towards a bright future together.  Over the past few years, we’ve built a strong foundation of trust with each other.  Collaboration is the way we do business now and it’s that team mentality that will help us answer these major questions going forward. 

When Senator Monroney introduced the bill to create the FAA 56 years ago, I wonder if he envisioned an aviation industry as robust and diverse as the one we are a part of today.  Looking ahead, in just 10 or 20 years from now, we’ll see even more rapid change and growth. Consider that while it took 100 years for commercial aviation to carry its first 65 billion passengers … it’s been forecast that this industry will carry its next 65 billion passengers in the next 15 to 20 years. The decisions we make together today will have a great impact, and shape what aviation will look like for decades to come. Let’s work together to leave an even safer, more efficient aviation system for the next generation of aviators.

Have a great week in your legislative meetings.