Before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation concerning FAA’s Progress on Key Safety Initiatives

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

Good afternoon, Chairman Rockefeller, Ranking Member Thune and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to be here today to discuss the FAA’s progress on key safety initiatives.

As you are aware, this is my first appearance before you as Administrator of the FAA. I appreciate the work of this committee and of the full Senate in moving my confirmation forward. We have a great number of challenges and opportunities ahead, and I look forward to enhancing our productive working relationship.  

The FAA’s number one priority is safety. It’s our mission, and we focus on it 24 hours a day.  

First let me briefly address the Boeing 787. The company has redesigned the internal battery components and conducted extensive testing. This includes limited test flights–without passengers–using the redesigned battery prototype. The FAA is reviewing these test reports and analysis to make sure that the 787’s new battery system ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers.

Turning to broader safety considerations, while aviation safety encompasses many technical issues, we cannot overlook the role of human beings in aviation and how they interact with sophisticated technology. 

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 increasing the required hours of experience a pilot must have before operating the controls of any airline flight. We are also finalizing a rule that requires more realistic training so that flight crews can better handle rare but serious scenarios.

The best way to enhance safety across the board is to improve the safety culture of an organization. Part of this effort involves self-reporting by our own employees on safety issues.

We have put programs in place for air traffic controllers and aviation technicians to report a problem, or even a mistake they may have made – and not fear retribution. This makes the system even safer.

We are taking many other actions to enhance safety across the board – including promoting safety management systems and sharing more data between industry and the FAA. By analyzing this data, we are able to identify trends and hazards across the airspace system and mitigate issues before something happens.  

As you know, we are in a very uncertain and unpredictable fiscal environment.

The sequester is requiring the FAA to make significant cuts in services and investments. These cuts will impact air traffic control, NextGen implementation, and our certification services.

We are exercising all options to reduce costs – a hiring freeze; cutting contracts; cutting travel and other items not related to day-to-day operations.

One of our largest contracts is the Federal Contract Tower Program. We have notified 149 airports across the country that federal funding for their air traffic control towers will end in mid-June. These airports have lower activity levels, and together, these contract towers handle less than 3 percent of the commercial operations nationally and less than 1 percent of the passengers. Communities still have the option to keep their tower open if they are able to provide the funding, and the FAA stands ready to help with that transition.

I want to emphasize that as we undergo the difficult process of implementing the deep cuts required by the sequester, we refuse to sacrifice safety–even if this means less efficient operations.

In addition to contract towers, large facilities will also be affected. To reach the figure we need to cut from our payroll—which is our largest operating cost—we have to furlough 47,000 of our employees for up to 11 days between now and September.

The furloughs will reduce controller work hours at all airports with towers, but also at radar facilities across the country. Again, safety is our number one concern. We will only allow the amount of air traffic that we can handle safely to take off and land. This means travelers should expect delays. Today we are meeting with air carriers to go over specific operational impacts related to the furloughs facility by facility. 

Furthermore, our aviation safety inspectors will have to focus their attention on the most pressing priorities and will devote their time to overseeing current activities to ensure continued operational safety of the existing fleet. These activities will take precedence over new projects.

Our overarching principle in making these difficult decisions is to maintain safety and offer the best air traffic services to the largest number of people both now and in the future.

It is my hope, and the hope of everyone at the Department of Transportation that our leaders can work together to rally around our nation’s air transportation system and protect the great contribution that civil aviation makes to our economy.

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