Before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Aviation, concerning FAA Reauthorization – One Year Later

Former Administrator, Michael Huerta (January 09, 2013–January 05, 2018)

Oral Testimony:

Chairman LoBiondo, Ranking Member Larsen, and Members of the Subcommittee: A year ago, Congress reauthorized the Federal Aviation Administration. After four and a half years of uncertainty and stop-gap measures, the predictability that reauthorization provided was very welcome. It allowed us to invest with greater certainty in the future of our aviation system. We’re grateful for your efforts on this, and we have been working very diligently in the past year to implement the provisions of reauthorization.

A year later, however, we again face fiscal uncertainty and unpredictability. The sequester is looming, and massive budget cuts are set to go into effect just two days from now. 

I want to make a clear distinction about how sequestration differs from previous government shutdowns that have been caused by failure to pass a budget, or by the temporary lapse in our authorization in July 2011.

First, almost all of our FAA accounts would be affected. Therefore, this would affect almost all of our employees.

We are looking at all options to reduce costs. We’re looking at a hiring freeze, and at cutting contracts and travel and other items not related to day-to-day operations. But, to reach the large figure we need to cut, we have little choice but to make up the rest through furloughing employees. This is not something that we take lightly.    

Unlike a government shutdown, under the sequester, almost all of our employees would be affected, even what we would traditionally call “essential personnel.” The vast majority of our employees, including “essential workers” would have to be furloughed. 

Under sequestration our flexibility is very limited because we must cut proportionately from all affected accounts. We can’t move money around and we have limited flexibility to choose what it is that we’re able to cut.

Now a very large portion of the DOT’s budget is exempt from the sequester. What this means is that the FAA will take more than 60 percent of the sequester cuts for all of the DOT, even though our agency makes up only about 20 percent of the department’s budget. Now, within the FAA, the airport grant program also is exempt from the sequester. So this again limits the choices we have on where to cut the money.  

Finally, we have a very short time frame to make the bulk of these massive cuts – about six months. And that means the cuts would need to be deeper to have the same effect as if we could spread them out.

It is my hope, and the hope of everyone at the Department of Transportation that our leaders can work together to rally around the improvements that we need for our nation’s air transportation system. We hope that we can continue to support the programs that we’ve all acknowledged were so important just one year ago. 

As we move forward, the number one mission of the FAA is safety. That will always be our priority.  

Let me say that with regard to the Boeing 787, we are working around the clock to conduct a comprehensive review of the critical systems of the aircraft, including the design, manufacture and assembly of the Dreamliner. As part of that review, we are working closely on a data-driven process to identify the cause of the recent battery issues and the mitigations for them.  

I appreciate the expression of confidence in the FAA’s actions from House T&I Committee Chairman Shuster and from Ranking Member Rahall, as well as from Subcommittee Chairman LoBiondo and Ranking Member Larsen. We all had a productive briefing just a couple of weeks ago.

Last week, we met with senior executives from Boeing to discuss the status of ongoing work to address the 787 battery issues. We will carefully analyze Boeing’s proposal to address these issues. But the safety of the flying public is our top priority and we won’t allow the 787 to return to commercial service until we’re confident that any proposed solution has addressed the battery failure risks. 

In the last few years, Congress has given us much guidance on how to advance aviation safety. And we have accomplished a great deal. The FAA overhauled flight and duty rules to guarantee that airline pilots have the opportunity to get the rest they need to operate safely. And we are raising the required hours of experience before a pilot can operate the controls of any airline flight. We are also finalizing a rule that will require more rigorous and realistic training so that flight crews can better handle rare but serious scenarios.

While we are enhancing the safety of the system that we know today, we are also working to deliver the benefits of new technology to create the aviation system of tomorrow through NextGen.

We are working to safely integrate Unmanned Aircraft Systems into our airspace.

Earlier this month, we requested proposals to host six test sites across the country to test unmanned aircraft systems.

 We need to better understand operational issues to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into our airspace. We need to explore pilot training. We need to make sure that unmanned aircraft sense and avoid other aircraft. And if an unmanned aircraft loses the link to its ground-based pilot, we need to make sure it operates safely.  

In addition, we are requesting comments from the public about how to address privacy concerns with these test sites. Each site operator will be required to obey all laws protecting an individual’s right to privacy.  

To bring NextGen to fruition we need to collaborate across the FAA and across the industry. Reauthorization asked us to do this, and we have made great strides in collaborative efforts on many fronts.

We have worked with our labor unions to lay the foundation for NextGen with the En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM.  The collaboration has been exceptional. We are now using this new computer system to guide airplanes at high altitudes in nearly half of our centers across the nation.

Chairman LoBiondo, as you know, a lot of the research that propels NextGen takes place in Atlantic City. The William J. Hughes Technical Center plays a key role in fostering NextGen and we appreciate your support.

We are collaborating with industry, and as a result of the work we are doing with our many partners, we are producing satellite-based navigation procedures much more quickly. We are using these NextGen procedures right now to reduce the miles that aircraft must fly; to create more direct routes; and to reduce fuel burn and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Right here in metro Washington, D.C. airlines have started using these NextGen procedures to fly into Dulles and Reagan National. We estimate they will save $2.3 million in fuel per year.

Reauthorization laid out a vision to address the future needs of our nation’s aviation system. These needs have not gone away. It’s important for us to work together to protect the great contribution that civil aviation makes to our economy.

Aviation is our largest export industry. It strengthens our balance of trade. It adds $1.3 trillion to the economy and it provides 10 million jobs.

I look forward to working with you. And I sincerely hope that we can work together to make sure that America continues to operate the largest and safest aviation system in the world.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared remarks. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.