"Positioning the U.S. Airline Industry for Success"
Michael Huerta, Washington, D.C.
December 9, 2014

ALPA Symposium

Thank you, Sean (Cassidy, First Vice President of ALPA), for that kind introduction. I want to take a minute to express my sincere thanks to Lee Moak for his tremendous work and leadership over the last four years as President of ALPA.

Lee’s accomplishments are many, but I think one of the greatest contributions he has made in the time that I have known him, which is throughout his tenures, is his participation on the NextGen Advisory Committee. Lee has a very unique ability to be clear, concise and direct when there is a need to be. He has frequently reminded us that the users of the system; the pilots, the controllers, and the technicians, are partners in the solutions as we look to the future of the industry.

The FAA has worked closely with ALPA as we published some major safety rules in the last four years. These include rules on pilot fatigue, pilot training and pilot qualifications. The guidance and expertise of Lee and everyone at ALPA has been instrumental to that success.

I wish Lee all the best in his future endeavors and I know that we’re going to continue to work together in the years ahead.

Unity in Reauthorization

As we think about the future, and the many changes we need to make to modernize our nation’s airspace system, and to maintain the equipment we use each and every day, we as an industry need to make our priorities clear.

Reauthorization is coming up next year. The FAA’s authorization ends on September 30 of next year, as you know. It’s amazing that we’re already here again, and it seems just a short while after the reauthorization of 2012 which came after 23 short-term extensions. We will only realize the full benefits of our airspace system when we have an aviation industry – and that’s everyone in the aviation industry – that is engaged and that is united around our priorities.

Our stakeholders would like us to do everything better; to do it faster; and to do it cheaper. Believe me, we’re all for that, but the question is, how are we going to do that, and more particularly, how are we going to do it in the constrained and unpredictable fiscal environment that we’ve found ourselves in in the last few years?

This industry needs to come together and rally around what is important. We need to fight for the priorities we all arrive at, and agree on how we’re going to pay for them if we truly want to position the U.S. airline industry for success in a very globally competitive environment. It’s critical.

This process will take compromise and setting aside of the many differences we might have between us. Everyone in this room has a responsibility to support efforts to secure an airspace system that best serves our entire nation.

Last year around this time, we started a conversation about what kind of an airspace system we want and how we should pay for it. And I want to add that Lee has served on the FAA’s Management Advisory Council and will continue in that role. He has helped us talk with stakeholders to gauge what the thoughts are on the best approach to reauthorization.

The FAA has not endorsed one idea versus another in this process, but what we have encouraged is a very open dialogue.

Among some in the industry, there is a sense that it’s time for structural change – structural reform. That is because the FAA is facing two main problems. First, there is a lack of predictability in our budgets due to short term extensions and continuing resolutions, and because of the constrained fiscal climate here in Washington. As we sit here today, the government faces running out of money on Thursday night, unless Congress reaches some kind of an agreement. Second, we face challenges focusing on core priorities in light of the very diverse interests of all of our stakeholders. It’s clear to me, however, that we will not succeed if we don’t set priorities.

Now, there is no shortage of viewpoints on how to solve these problems and the direction we should take. And as I said just now, we have not taken a position. But what I hear are many separate conversations – conversations about new structure for air traffic control or conversations about structures for addressing certification. What we need to have is a conversation across the industry to identify the priorities for the system as a whole. The danger is that if we only promote certain narrow interests, we could devolve into trading one of our interests off against another, and our industry as a whole will be worse off.

Our national airspace system underpins an industry that adds $1.5 trillion to our economy. This system is really an ecosystem, where each part relies on the other to function well. There can’t be a disconnect between industry and government or between sectors in the industry if we expect to be successful. All of us should have a very keen interest in how all of these issues play out.

So, we need to have an honest conversation about the fiscal challenges we face. While you can always debate the exact budgetary needs of an agency, one thing is clear: there is simply no way the FAA can implement NextGen, and recapitalize our aging infrastructure; and continue to provide the same level of services without making some serious tradeoffs. Even with short term choices, there will be significant impacts to our budget and the services that we can provide. So what does that mean? It means we need to have the flexibility to make investment choices that further the health of our airspace system, and not make choices simply because they might be politically popular.

I fear there is a level of complacency that’s developing that everything is just fine and that business as usual might work. Complacency is a mistake. If we don’t come up with a concrete plan, and if we don’t do it collectively, I’m afraid we’ll be signing up for more instability and uncertainty – which is exactly the thing we all agree we need to get out of.

Global Initiative

Why is this work important? Because as you know, the airline and aviation industry is expanding globally, and we want to make sure the entire global system is safe and that the United States continues to remain the gold standard for excellence in aviation. Believe me it takes a lot of work to maintain that position. We at the FAA want to do everything we can to assure that the U.S. remains a global leader.

Working through ICAO is an important way to make sure that we maintain high standards globally. We are planning to send more FAA technical experts to ICAO in the coming year in order to make sure that we have a seat at the table so that we can weigh in when ICAO makes important decisions about international aviation standards.

We are moving towards a seamless global airspace. As we modernize, we want to make sure that these new systems can interact with each other. We have participated in some very important work on the updated Global Air Navigation Plan and the subsequent Aviation System Block Upgrades. These upgrades created a new and innovative way to integrate and harmonize multiple and complex systems of air navigation and emerging technologies across the globe. Just yesterday in Chicago, ICAO held an extraordinary meeting to celebrate the organization’s 70th anniversary. It was a meeting of many leaders of aviation from across the globe. Everyone recommitted themselves to working together so that civil aviation will continue to develop in a peaceful manner to promote economic development and prosperity for all nations.

NextGen Priorities

Here at home, we have worked closely with industry, through the NextGen Advisory Committee, to define and focus our NextGen priorities. ALPA has been a very important part of this, and I’ve seen a lot of Lee and Sean in the last few years. We have listened to what you say and we have actively responded.

The NextGen priorities are an example of what can happen when industry and government get together and really work through the issues and crystalize what we as an industry want from our aviation system and what we will work for together. It’s the kind of cooperation that we need on reauthorization.

We are sharpening our focus on near term NextGen benefits by working on these priorities that we have all agreed upon, and that we are committed to delivering. These fall in four areas: more satellite-based navigation procedures; better use of runways; better situational awareness at airports; and more streamlined departure clearances through DataComm.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what we are working on.

The first is satellite-based navigation. A lot of really, really important and great work has been happening in Seattle and Denver and other cities through collaboration with airlines, airports, and other stakeholders. We are fast-tracking more direct routes in the airspace above other busy metropolitan areas through our Metroplex initiative. These routes are easing congestion in our airspace and significantly increasing the efficiency and predictability of arrivals and departures.

This fall, all in one day, we turned on 61 new air traffic procedures going into metropolitan Houston.

The new arrival routes – the optimized profile descents – take an aircraft from cruise altitude and allow the pilot to almost glide down rather than stepping down in the traditional stair-step arrival that burns fuel during each level-off. To non-aviation groups, I say that this eliminates the aviation equivalent of stop-and-go driving in traffic.

These new procedures are also safer. They are more simple and consistent. They are easier to fly and take less back and forth between the controller and the pilot, and there’s less interpretation and therefore less margin of error. Pilots have more confidence because they know where they are situationally at any given point in time.

I want to thank the pilot community for the help with designing these procedures and with the changes to the phraseology we use to refer to them. You have educated your membership both at home and abroad, and that has helped with the successful adoption of these NextGen routes.

What’s really exciting about this, is that in Houston, every year, airlines expect to save about 3 million gallons of fuel. And that translates to, in current fuel prices, to about $9 million per year in fuel savings. These are just on arrivals and departures in one metropolitan area. Think of the emissions that are being saved because the aircraft are burning so much less fuel. And that’s what this technology enables.

More recently, we turned on the North Texas Metroplex this fall, and I was proud to have Sean (Cassidy) there on the dais to celebrate our joint success. There was some healthy Texas competition with the roll out of these new procedures. Since Houston turned on 61 new procedures, Dallas later turned on more than 80. Now we will expand these benefits to Northern California, Charlotte and Atlanta in the next three years in response to the request that came from industry.

While these procedures make our airspace more efficient, we also want to get the most out of our nation’s runways, which takes me to the second example. Industry has asked loud and clear for improved wake turbulence separation standards at more airports. We heard you, and we are increasing the number of airports with this capability. We are going to reduce separation standards at nine new airports in five cities over the next year. Those cities are: Houston, metropolitan New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Charlotte.

We have already seen the benefits in Memphis and Louisville over the last two years. This year, we have implemented these new standards in Cincinnati and Atlanta. At Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, we’re seeing great results. Delta Air Lines is reporting faster taxi out times, reduced departure delays in the queue and they are spending less time in TRACON airspace.

Now industry and the FAA came together to choose these NextGen priorities and we intend to deliver on them. We focused our efforts so that we could achieve the maximum benefits in the shortest amount of time. It’s this kind of cooperation and negotiation that will spell success for our industry as we look across the aviation industry as a whole. We need this same type of unity and focus for our upcoming reauthorization.


America truly is unique in that we have a vibrant and diverse aviation industry. In addition to the commercial carriers and regional carriers, we have business aviation and recreational flyers. And then there are the new users: unmanned aircraft and commercial space operators. We have a strong manufacturing base for aircraft and for avionics. Each sector is important and together they create the 12 million jobs that civil aviation contributes to our economy.

Many of you have heard me say that aviation was born in America. It started here, and it’s always embodied something that’s uniquely American – the belief in limitless opportunities. So many before us have made great contributions in engineering, avionics, design and manufacturing – all of which have gotten us to where we are today.

It’s our responsibility as leaders in this industry to protect our system and to grow this system and move it forward. We need to think about the future and how we will modernize our system and make sure we position our airlines for success in an increasingly competitive global environment.

We all need each other, and we need consensus across the entire industry in this very tough fiscal environment. Coming to some kind of consensus is not easy. In fact, we all know it’s very, very hard. But the price of complacency will be much greater. Aviation has consistently pioneered innovation in this country, so let’s create an alternative path to the gridlock that has been so prevalent here in this town for so many years. I look forward to finding a solution with all of you in this room to ensure that we at the FAA, and you in industry, are in the position to continue to provide the safest and most efficient system we need in the years ahead. I don’t think any of us should settle for anything less.