During his wide-ranging WATS 2024 keynote address, FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker hit all the key notes on what he noted is an exciting time in aviation. Increased visibility on Boeing aircraft. Taking action with near-misses on US airport runways. Cascading decisions on training regulations for eVTOL operators. Air traffic controller workforce shortages. And that’s to start. “My focus, not surprisingly, since day one in this position has been on those safety risks, identifying those risks, and mitigating those risks.”

Rick Adams, veteran aviation training journalist and WATS 2024 pilot conference moderator, said it best when he introduced the official. The former CAT editor remarked, “He appears to have the right mix of credentials for this transformative time in commercial aviation. And from my vantage point, he seems to be taking appropriate actions to put the FAA ship on the right course for the future.”

While this remains the safest epoch in US aviation history, challenges are evident in and beyond the 24/7 news cycle. 

At the top of the administrator’s list of challenges were industry-wide workforce shortfalls and training challenges: difficulties in finding employees; the “covid hangover” with the loss of senior experience and creation of organizational knowledge gaps. 

Whitaker highlighted runway safety as a major priority, casting light on communication between controllers and pilots and other operational shortfalls. This was one of several instances when Whitaker issued the call for “more training” along with other actions. Training, yes, and also safety, with Whitaker declaring “Safety is a team sport, it’s an ecosystem, and every player in that ecosystem has to do their part.” 

The organization leader called attention to FAA being both regulator and operator. In the latter case, he emphasized air traffic control is a 24/7 operation, with FAA seeking to close this operational gap by hiring more controllers and addressing fatigue issues. Whitaker also reminded a capacity auditorium, “It is a very challenging and important position, and takes two to three years to make a controller.” Indeed, he told those assembled that the FAA has seen significant growth in demand and capacity on the airline side and it is challenging to keep up with that growth when it takes years to train a controller. They have been very aggressive exceeding hiring targets while also increasing hiring through programs such as enhanced CTI schools. ATC workforce issues led FAA to “use a relief valve, by reducing capacity by 10 percent in the Northeast Corridor so that we do not compromise safety.”

Of further interest to CAT followers, should be the FAA administrator’s call for the use of “strong tools” to keep the national airspace system safe – in particular, the use of data. Noting “we have a lot of data, we can use it to look for risks and mitigate them,” he added, “We can do a lot better. We need more and better tools.”

Whitaker told WATS attendees that SMS is here to stay, and will be expanding to help “connect the dots, to help us talk to each other.”

Observing he has a new counterpart at EASA, the FAA leader also highlighted his interest and priority in expanded international cooperation. 

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