Airports: The Heart of American Aviation

Administrator Stephen M Dickson (August 12, 2019 - present)

Remarks As Delivered

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you to the Airports Council International-North America and the American Association of Airport Executives for the invitation to be here today.

I’m a relative newcomer to the FAA, having started in the role as Administrator back in August. But I’m no stranger to airports, having spent the last 40 years as a pilot, first as a military pilot in the U.S. Air Force at home and abroad, then at Delta for 27 years.

Over the course of my career I’ve operated into airports as diverse as Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, to Great Falls, Montana; from Eagle, Colorado, to JFK; and from Monroe, Louisiana to O’Hare. One thing I have realized is how incredibly efficient our airport system is in the US, especially compared to other airports around the world.

Through the collaboration of our airport operators, the FAA airports team, the Air Traffic Organization, the airlines and other stakeholders, we get tremendous utilization out of the investments in our airports. And we are currently seeing a tremendous amount of capital investment in our airports around the country. This is definitely a good thing for our communities and our economy.

At the FAA, I’ve already had the chance to take part in a Part 139 airport certification inspection at the Reagan National Airport, including an airboat water rescue demonstration. The thoroughness of these reviews and the dedication and professionalism of airport employees, working behind the scenes, always ready for contingencies, make me certain that the public is in good hands both in the air and on the ground when they travel.

As Administrator of FAA, it’s important to me that we celebrate and recommit to our longstanding relationships and partnerships with the airport community. We have worked with ACI and AAAE for more than 70 years to ensure the safety, capacity, and efficiency of our nation’s system of airports.

Our collaboration is vitally important, because airports are the heart of the U.S. aviation transportation system, an economic powerhouse that is without rival anywhere in the world. Without the heart, nothing is moving. Without a healthy heart, the viability and safety of the entire system is also at risk.

I’m proud to say that the heart of our aviation system is beating strong and steady. Through congressional support and the ongoing collaboration between our Office of Airports and industry, we will continue to ensure the long-term health of our entire airport system.

The depth and breadth of the airport business—and the 19,000-plus landing facilities in our system—never ceases to amaze me. Consider that within a 25-mile radius of where we’re sitting right now, there are three major international airports – BWI Thurgood Marshall, Reagan National, and Dulles—and dozens of public, private, military airports and heliports.

One of those airports, College Park, is the oldest continuously operating airport in the world and is where the Wright Brothers first demonstrated the usefulness of aviation to the military starting in 1909. College Park was also the site of the first U.S. Postal Air Mail service and the first controlled flight of a helicopter.

Also nearby, National airport, later renamed for a famous president, became the first airport to get groovy in the late 1960s—they cut grooves into the runway to reduce hydroplaning. Think about how many accidents and incidents that technology has prevented.

We are constantly planning for the future of our airports, and testing new technology. At another local airport, Leesburg Executive, controllers work with high tech computer tools and video feeds in front of high-definition screens in a dark room rather than a tower cab. The remote tower technologies and standard operating procedures they are using are still in the testing phase, but we are making progress.

At Dulles airport, we have cameras installed at various points on the approach and departure to gather data that will potentially influence future airport design standards.

There’s much more to come. In our fiscal year 2021 budget request, we are also requesting over $200 million in airport research and technology to improve airports not just today but well into the future.

This budget includes $40.6 million for the Airport Technology Research program, directed at the safe and efficient integration of new and innovative technologies into the airport environment. This includes an additional $1.4 million to conduct research and to develop standards related to urban air mobility—also known as flying taxis. It also includes funding for new and innovative pavement materials testing.

The budget includes $170 million in our Research, Engineering & Development account to continue other research at the Tech Center in areas that will ultimately benefit airports. Included are fire safety, human factors, advanced materials, aircraft airworthiness, and unmanned aircraft systems research.

You’ll be interested to know that in January, we opened a new $5 million research facility at the Tech Center to concentrate on one on our highest safety priorities—finding fluorine-free alternatives to PFAS firefighting foams. We’re making progress, and in fact have begun baseline testing fluorinated foams, the first step in developing alternatives.

Our ultimate goal is to continue protecting the safety of the traveling public while also addressing this important environmental issue in collaboration with our government partners, including the Department of Defense.

From the Administration, to Secretary Chao, to Congress, we are getting the support we need to continue to provide the safest, most efficient airports possible. Our priorities dovetail with the DOT’s: Reducing transportation-related fatalities and serious injuries; investing in infrastructure; innovating, and being accountable.

This is important, because the number of people using the transportation system is growing, and the only way to continue that successful growth is to maintain or increase the safety, efficiency, and capacity of all of our nation’s airports.

According to 2019 data from the Bureau of Transportation statistics, U.S. airlines carried approximately 926 million passengers. That’s up more than 4% compared to 2018 and more than 12% compared to 2016.

To keep up with growth and maintain safety and efficiency, we are working to expedite the granting of $3.17 billion in congressionally approved Airport Improvement Funding, or AIP, and $400 million in supplemental funding this year. That makes for a total of $3.57 billion going to airports this year, and a total of $1.9 billion in supplemental funding over the past three years.

This investment reflects DOT’s and FAA’s commitment to our nation’s airport infrastructure. It supports our continued focus on capacity, efficiency, and environmental sustainability of our airports, and—most importantly—our safety related development projects, including those that reduce runway incursions and reduce the risk of wrong-surface takeoffs and landings.

Not surprisingly, the bottom line for all of our activities, investments, and research has to be this: Safety must be maintained or improved, preferably with—but not dependent on—a boost in efficiency and capacity.

That core value is nowhere more visible than our work with reducing the potential for runway incursions. Through our Runway Incursion Mitigation, or RIM, program, we’ve been focusing our analysis and risk assessments on runway incursions and wrong surface events. 

The RIM program remains the gold standard for reducing runway incursions. The FAA has shown a reduction of more than 67% in runway incursion rates at airports where we’ve mitigated those problematic locations. We’ve completed RIM modifications to runways and taxiways at close to 50 locations, and construction is underway at another 14 locations. We have mitigations for about 100 locations in the planning or design phase.

However, as with all things related to safety, the work is never done. In particular, the Office of Airports continues to encourage industry and sponsors to address airport geometry as a primary consideration when analyzing RIM locations.

We can’t discuss safety without touching on the 737 MAX situation. First off, on behalf of everyone at the FAA, I would like to, once again, extend our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of the victims of both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX accidents.

Our international air transportation network is a tightly woven fabric that is vital to the world’s economy. When that fabric unravels, we feel the effects globally. We have to look no further than these crashes to understand this. Onboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302—which crashed one year ago on March 10—were the citizens of 35 countries.

We will honor the memory of those who lost their lives by working tirelessly every day to ensure the highest possible margin of safety in the global aviation system.

For the MAX, I have been steadfast in saying that our return-to-service decision will be based solely on our assessment of the sufficiency of Boeing’s proposed software updates and pilot training that address the known issues for grounding the aircraft. I realize this grounding has had an impact on certain airports due to airline schedule changes, but our course is set. We have no choice. If the public is not confident in their aviation system, they simply will not fly.

We at the FAA have welcomed the scrutiny and feedback from near and far on how we can improve our processes. There have been multiple independent reviews launched to look at the 737 MAX and the FAA’s certification and delegation processes. Going forward beyond the MAX, we are ready to stand up and speak out on key themes that are emerging regarding aircraft certification, operations, processes, and pilot training not only in the U.S., but around the world.

One of those key themes and one of my main goals is to promote the adoption of a Just Culture and Safety Management Systems, or SMS, throughout the aerospace system, including at certain Part 139 airports.

I know SMS for airports has been a long time coming, but I want to assure you that we have not forgotten this important sector. I’ve directed our folks to take a strategic look at rolling out SMS at airports. You’ve provided many great comments over the past 10 years, and many of you have voluntarily implemented SMS in your organizations—thank you for that. Rest assured, there is more to come on this subject.

It’s important to note that when we look broadly at what we must do to meet the public’s expectations of the highest possible levels of safety globally, we have to consider everything that impacts safety, even unusual or unplanned events like the spread of infectious diseases or drones affecting airport operations.

First I’ll discuss the new Covid 19 virus.

The very connectedness that makes our industry so vital to the global economy also puts us on the front lines for protecting our citizens from outbreaks like Covid 19 within our borders. We must be proactive and strategic in our response—but tactical as necessary—as we combat the threat.

Speaking of being proactive, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the airports that took the initiative to work across federal agencies to help with the U.S. response to the Covid 19 outbreak. In particular, I’d like to thank those 11 funneling airports who have worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as Customs and Border Protection. Your help has been invaluable and effective, and it has been noticed.

The FAA is engaged at both the national and international levels on communicable disease preparedness. Within the United States, the FAA is collaborating and coordinating daily with the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Transportation Security Administration, and State and Local public health partners.  

The FAA’s role is essentially one of support and facilitation on this issue, but, as the focal point for aviation in the U.S. Government, we are very well positioned to bring together our civil aviation stakeholders and our international and interagency partners to work towards preventing the spread of communicable disease.

We are supporting our interagency and industry partners by facilitating operational discussions with our public health and homeland security partners. We have worked closely with CDC and CBP to develop crew health guidance and screening protocols to maximize protection of the traveling public while minimizing operational impacts to the aviation system, including airports.

We must be sure that we maintain the highest levels of safety for airports, whether we are responding to the novel coronavirus or working to integrate emergent technology and innovative new ideas that are reshaping our industry. Consider the meteoric rise in unmanned aircraft operations. In the U.S., we’ve registered about 1.5 million of these aircraft, that’s already about five-times as many drones as manned aircraft in our registry.

The Office of Airports is actively working with the various FAA lines of business to integrate UAS into the airport environment, protecting aviation safety, while enabling airport operators to use drones for key functions. As you know, we’re conducting research on UAS Integration at airports to evaluate how they can be used to perform airport-centric operations, such as wildlife monitoring, aircraft rescue and firefighting operations, surveying, and pavement and infrastructure inspection.

We are also finalizing a research plan for evaluating UAS detection and mitigation technologies and establishing performance standards through the Tech Center, as well as reviewing proposals from airports looking to install UAS detection systems.

Since we’re talking new entrants, I’ll also mention the rise in commercial space and spaceports. The FAA is making rapid progress in our regulatory role in commercial space transportation by paving the way for easier access to low Earth orbit through the National Airspace System.

We’re doing this by streamlining the rules for commercial launch and re-entry while at the same time protecting national security and public safety. There’s really not much choice – given that Commercial space launch activity in general has ramped up tenfold in just a few years, we either innovate and move forward, or risk being left behind.

We understand some airports embrace this new technology, but others are concerned about how it will impact their operations.  All FAA lines-of-business are working together to develop operating procedures to minimize conflicts in our National Airspace System and better ways of coordinating with all of our stakeholders.

And speaking of stakeholders—which includes communities—let’s talk about noise.

Over the past two years, the FAA has implemented a standard, repeatable process to ensure productive and effective community involvement for new or modified air traffic procedures.  We have also put in place the Noise Complaint Initiative, with a system called the Noise Portal, to more effectively and efficiently track and respond to noise complaints. We have been using the system internally since 2018 and anticipate opening this portal to the public by the end of March. 

Of course the FAA will continue to pursue technological improvements to reduce noise, fuel burn and emissions under our Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise (CLEEN) Program, which will continue to be funded in FY21.  In addition to technological advancements, the FAA is assessing take-off and landing operational procedures in order to reduce aircraft noise near airports. 

Historically, the FAA’s noise strategy has been to hold local community roundtables with residents, airport management, government officials, and industry, to try to develop solutions where there are concerns.

In the future, we’d like to develop tool kits tailored to address specific concerns of individual communities, prepare historical traffic analyses, and evaluate the feasibility of changes proposed through these roundtables to performance based navigation procedures. Our FY21 budget request includes $4.3 million for this work.

I’ll close out by going back into the history books on this topic of noise. One month from now—April 4—will mark the 60th anniversary of the very first regulations the FAA issued to minimize aircraft noise at major airports, starting with LAX, New York Idlewild—later to become JFK—and Washington National.

The rules were clear—safety was the highest priority—but where possible, pilots and controllers could use procedural methods—minimum altitudes, preferential runways, and approach and departure routes over the least populated areas—to offer relief to communities.

Obviously, aircraft these days are much quieter and environmentally friendlier, but the sheer number of machines in the air 24/7/365 makes the issue of noise—and other elements of our air transportation system—a continuing concern not only for communities, but for airports and other stakeholders.

I’m here to tell you that we were listening then, in 1960, and we’re still listening now.

And thank you for listening! I appreciate having the chance to speak with you today.