US Transportation Secretary’s Remarks on Aviation Safety and Training, the FAA and More

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Pete Buttigieg, US Secretary of Transportation.
Image credit: US House of Representatives

This September 20, the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure convened a full member hearing on Oversight of the Department of Transportation’s Policies and Programs. The proceeding’s witness was The Honorable Pete Buttigieg, Secretary, US Department of Transportation. Marty Kauchak, CAT correspondent, viewed the hearing and provides extracts of topics of interest to civil aviation training and safety.

Eyes on the US Senate

The approximate 2.5-hour congressional hearing lived up to its billing – committee members and the secretary discussed close to the full range of intersecting policy and legislative issues under the oversight of the DoT and this congressional committee, from electric vehicles to highway construction to railroad crossings. Of interest to the commercial aviation industry training and safety enterprise were brief, but insightful exchanges between the cabinet secretary and individual members on a range of issues. The hearing took place against the background of the US government being about 10 days away from the end of fiscal year 2023, the FY2024 appropriations process in chaos and a government shutdown looming over spending – politically and fiscally divisive issues beyond the editorial purview of CAT.

FAA reauthorization legislation bills were introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives this June. A bill was passed by the House in July, but companion legislation has not yet made it through the Senate. The FAA’s current authorization is set to expire this Sept. 30. As of today’s hearing, there was no Senate action scheduled on this matter. Indeed, the secretary and the committee leadership voiced their interest in the Senate quickly passing its bill so that President Biden may sign the legislation prior to the October 1 start of the US government’s fiscal year 2024.

Air System Safety

Committee member Rep. Hank Johnson (Democrat, Georgia) asked the cabinet member for an update on DoT’s implementation of warning systems at airports across the US, and other actions so as to mitigate the increase in “close calls and other alarming incidents.” Buttigieg told the hearing attendees, “this is something that has great deal of attention and focus at the FAA and Department of Transportation’s front office. We recognize there a number of specific steps that can help. Some are steps to build awareness and readiness among everyone who has a piece of the puzzle when it comes to aviation safety – controllers, pilots and ground crews. This is why there has been focus on situational awareness, communications and readback, hence sterile cockpits. Some of this is also a matter of having the right infrastructure. We’re engaging with airports on this through other mechanisms – runway safety action team meetings that take place at airports and work to have the latest technologies available.”

ATC Workforce Status

The US air traffic control system has been in the cross-hairs of different community stakeholders through the widespread flight delays during winter 2022-23, and other events. Addressing the vibrancy of the underpinning ATC foundation, the cabinet member called attention “to hitting our target of 1,500 this year, to be hired. We have about 2,600 air traffic controllers in the [training] pipeline.” Emphasizing he “would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a government shutdown would stop us in our tracks at exactly the wrong moment when it comes to hiring and growing the ATC workforce. While those who are qualified controllers in the tower would be permitted to continue working, it would stop training, just at that moment when we’re finally trending positive in terms of the number of people ready to take those seats.”

The Transportation Department remains concerned about filling the FAA's top leadership group and filling rank-and file positions – the air traffic controllers (above), in particular. Source: FAA

Age 65 Pilot Retirement

The House FAA Authorization includes the provision to raise the US commercial pilot retirement age from 65 to 67, certain to create a showdown with the US Senate which is leaning to maintain current standard as it consider its FAA bill. In an interesting exchange, Rep. Troy Nehls (Republican, Texas) spoke from his observation that there is a US pilot shortage. The committee member then initially asked the secretary if he believed “at a certain age, people should be forced to retire at this arbitrary age of 65. Is that fair, is it right?” When Buttigieg responded, “Yes,” the congressman pressed the issue and asked whether the president of the US should be forced to retire at age 80. The cabinet officer, responded, “Most of us can agree there are certain professions like flying an aircraft that are different.” The committee member concluding remark was, “Let’s keep our experienced pilots in the air!”

Let the congressional debate continue on this aviation workforce legislative topic.

Top FAA Position Vacancies – Work Still Getting Done

On the FAA leadership side, Michael Whitaker was officially nominated for the position of FAA Administrator on Sept. 7. The nominee is currently awaiting Senate confirmation. The agency has been without a Senate-confirmed Administrator since March 2022.

Rep. Garret Graves (Republican, Louisiana) asked the secretary to reflect on that and other current FAA vacancies. Buttigieg responded, the most important way to address FAA’s leadership issues is “for the swift confirmation of our nomination,” but added, most of the other senior-level vacancies are not Senate-confirmed positions. “And just to be clear, there are no ‘empty chairs’ there. All of the work is getting done. At the same time, we would benefit from having confirmed, or where not confirmed, permanent people in each of those roles. We hope to have more announcements soon on that. In addition to the top group, we’re also concerned about filling those rank-and file positions – the air traffic controllers, in particular. That is one of many reasons we’re very hopeful this chamber can help avoid a [funding] shutdown that would stop our training.”

As of the afternoon of Sept. 20, there was no Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing scheduled on the FAA Administrator nomination.

CAT is Watching

Of note was the absence of discussion in today’s hearing about eVTOLs, the 1,500-hour rule and other topics of interest to the training and safety enterprise. CAT will continue following and commenting on Capitol Hill’s progress to advance a number of legislative-related issues of importance to the aviation community.

The congressional hearing’s proceedings may be viewed in entirety here.


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