May 19, 2015
Statement of Michael Huerta, Administrator
Before the Senate Commerce Committee on FAA Reauthorization: Air Traffic Control Modernization and Reform
As prepared for delivery
Chairman Thune, Ranking Member Nelson and Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to speak today about the reauthorization of the FAA.
The upcoming FAA reauthorization provides us with the opportunity to propel our system to the next level of safety and foster the kind of innovative climate that has long been the hallmark of our proud aviation heritage.
This reauthorization has provided a forum for many in industry and government to openly discuss possible changes to the governance structure of the FAA to help us create the aviation system that will sustain our nation’s economic growth well into the future. We are open to having this discussion. But we must all agree on the most important problems reauthorization should fix. In our view those are budget instability and the lack of flexibility to execute our priorities. These challenges exist for the entire agency – not just for the air traffic control and NextGen organizations, as some have suggested.
In addition to finding agreement on the problem we’re trying to solve, we should agree on finding ways to avoid unintended consequences. Our ability to deploy NextGen technologies and capabilities hinges on interdependencies and relationships within the agency. NextGen is more than installing technology in our air traffic facilities and on aircraft – it involves the close participation of our safety organization to ensure that the technology is safe and that controllers and pilots know how to use it safely. We believe that any decision about governance must take into account these issues so that we may best serve our nation and the flying public.
Some have argued for change saying the FAA has not delivered on air traffic modernization. I would argue that the FAA has already made major progress in modernizing our airspace system through NextGen. We completed installation of a more powerful technology platform with our new high altitude air traffic control system – known as ERAM. This system will accommodate the applications of NextGen and allow controllers to handle the expected increase in air traffic more efficiently. And last year we finished the coast-to-coast installation of the ADS-B network that will enable satellite-based air traffic control.
On a parallel track, through our collaboration with industry, we identified key priorities in implementing NextGen air traffic procedures. We now have more satellite-based procedures in our skies than radar-based procedures. We have created new NextGen routes above some of our busiest metropolitan areas, saving millions of dollars in fuel, decreasing carbon emissions and cutting down on delays in each city.
In addition to these improvements, we have set clear priorities on delivering more benefits in the next three years. These range from improved separation standards for heavy aircraft; better coordination of traffic on the airport surface; and streamlined departure clearances using data communications.
NextGen has already yielded $1.6 billion in benefits to airlines and the traveling public. In the next 15 years the changes we have already made will produce $11.4 billion in benefits.
We recognize it is not enough to rely on projected benefits. That is why we go back and study the benefits that certain improvements have provided to users. For example, in Atlanta, we safely reduced wake separation standards to improve the efficiency of the airport. Because of this change, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has increased the number of planes that can land by up to 5 percent, which translates into about five more planes per hour. Delta Air Lines is also saving up to two minutes of taxi time per flight. These improvements are saving Delta between $13 million to $18 million in operating costs annually.
We are aware of the criticisms of the FAA’s implementation of NextGen, and I would like to explain our approach. There are different theories about how to deploy technology in a complex operating environment. Some take the position that you should start from a wide ranging vision and work back from there on developing a range of scenarios. Others suggest mapping out the entire picture and only proceeding when you are sure of the end game. Others say to take a more pragmatic approach, and this is the path the FAA has chosen – based on close consultation with industry. This approach, used by the Office of Management and Budget, closely matches investments with tangible benefits to airlines and passengers. We acknowledge that it requires upfront investment, and we are careful not to strand programs in the middle of implementation.
When dealing with wide-spread change in a dynamic airspace system there is no margin of error. This system must transport 750 million passengers every year with the highest level of safety. Any technology we implement must be reliable and safe from the outset. To achieve this high standard, we must remain nimble and have flexibility.
Our aviation system is a valuable asset for the American public. We should use the upcoming reauthorization to provide the FAA with the tools necessary to meet the demands of the future and minimize disruption to the progress we’ve already made with NextGen and our work to integrate new users into our airspace system.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee today. I am happy to take any questions you may have.