Podcast: A Call To Help The FAA
Aerospace Industries Association chief Eric Fanning joins our reporters to talk about the FAA's leadership woes and chronic underfunding of ATC.
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Welcome to this week's Check 6 Podcast. I'm Joe Anselmo, Aviation Week's editorial director.
US Air Travel is exceedingly safe, but the agency responsible for overseeing it is a hot mess. The Federal Aviation Administration is about to lose its acting administrator, Billy Nolan, with no successor in sight after President Joe Biden's nominee was torpedoed in the US Senate. Counting Nolan, nearly 30% of the senior leaders at the 45,000 person agency are now staffed by people in acting roles.
Meanwhile, a chronic underfunding of ATC was exposed in January when the agency's NOTAM system malfunctioned, causing the first nationwide grounding stop of flights since the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. And hopes are not high that Congress will actually do its job and address the agency's long-term needs.
Here to discuss the crisis are Aviation Week editors Bill Carey and Sean Broderick, authors of the recent Aviation Week story, “An Agency Adrift.” They are joined by a special guest, Eric Fanning, the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, which is the aerospace industry's eyes and voice on Capitol Hill. Eric, welcome. I wanted to start with you. Did I just paint too grim of a picture? Is there some hope that the FAA’s problems will be addressed?
Thanks for having me. And I think you got the most important headline there, which is that air travel is very safe, safer year over year, and remains everyone's priority. But there do seem to be a number of things that we need to address at the FAA because there's a lot of new technology coming down the pike, a lot of new entrants, and we need to make sure that they are poised to maintain this incredible record of safety, while also opening up the skies to all sorts of new ways of using things that we haven't in the past. So, I also get your point about leadership. It is important that we have a confirmed, established leader at the helm of the FAA, and a stable team around that person.
There's a lot of dysfunction on Capitol Hill. I mean, the political climate is just toxic as you well know. Is there any hope that Congress will come together and do the critical task that need to be done to support this agency and get it back on its feet?
Well, there is broad bipartisan support, members and their teams working together on the FAA reauthorization. It's a different environment than I'm used to coming from the defense side where we have an authorization bill every year. We’ve got to get a lot done with this bill, and it requires resource as well, and that's hard in this environment.
Every year we have continuing resolutions. This year we have the debt ceiling, and so garnering the support for the resource that FAA needs to address the issues it has now, but also set it up for the future for this new technology, these new entrants, is going to be difficult, there's no question about it. We talk all the time about workforce issues on the industry side, but this is actually a much larger issue, it's workforce across the entire partnership. We need to make sure that the FAA has the workforce it needs, that workforce is trained to do what's being asked of it.
Bill Carey, I talked about the leadership issues, but there's also an FAA reauthorization coming up. Where does that stand and what are some of the key issues there?
Thanks, Joe. There's been several hearings already by the House Aviation subcommittee, as well as at least one that I'm aware of by the Senate Commerce Committee, on the topic of reauthorization. The new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is Sam Graves of Missouri, and he's committed to moving that reauthorization legislation and having it approved in advance of the current reauthorization bill, which expires at the end of September, the end of the fiscal year. So I think Congress is on top of this in terms of coming to a bipartisan agreement and moving that legislation forward. Certainly the NOTAM crisis in January may have expedited things.
Sean Broderick, you've covered the agency for years, sounds like there is hope and maybe I was a little too harsh in my opening assessment.
Well, reauthorization is typically a tricky process. I mean, this current five year bill that ends in September, it's the first five-year bill we've had in decades. The previous long-term bill, a four-year bill done under the Obama Administration, came after about five years of extensions, so the FAA had to go through year by year, 20 some odd continuing resolutions to keep funding going. Those don't help because they don't get any newness into the bill. They are simply adding money to what was already there, and there's the new things like Eric talked about, AAM integration for example. If we go three years of continuing resolutions or extensions to keep the funding going, that's not going to help very much address some of these issues that are coming down the pike, and coming down fairly quickly.
The thing I'm interested in though, and I was going to throw this back to Eric, so Eric, there's been at least six hearings up there, I don't believe AIA has testified in any of those, if I'm not mistaken. So I'd be curious to hear, you touched on some of them, but what are your organization's top general priorities for this reauthorization bill? What do you want to see in there, and maybe what do you want to see not in there to help ensure that it gets done as quickly as possible?
Well, also what's not in there in order to make sure we don't tamp down on innovation in the industry. So first I think we want to make sure that the FAA retains its global leadership in setting policies, standards, that the rest of the world looks to. That is really a competitive advantage for the United States and something with a lot of global support. But there are other countries and other regions that would love to step in and take some of that leadership should we falter. That's probably the first, most paramount important thing.
Second, we need to make sure that they are building the workforce that they need up and down to make sure that they understand, can be good partners with industry. We are not going to get the regulatory framework that we need, and keep pushing on safety without a strong partnership inside of government and outside of government. We need both sides to have workforce in place that understands the technical issues that are just only going to get more complex with the new technologies and the new entrants that are there.
And then finally, we need to make sure that that regulatory framework to support this cutting edge technology doesn't tamp out innovation. We want this to be an attractive industry and market for investors. There's a tremendous return on the investment the US government makes in keeping a strong, well-staffed FAA in terms of what it does for American industry and that leadership in the world.
I had a question too for Eric. Going back to the NOTAM system meltdown in January. I think that revived talk of, and I hate to bring this up again, of spinning off the air traffic organization from the main FAA, having it operate as an independent agency comparable to the NAV Canada model. I'm curious as to whether you've heard any sort of sentiment to do that, and if there's maybe not a groundswell for that now, but even an appetite to move that through Congress. I think that was kind of argued and resolved prior to the current reauthorization in 2018, but have you heard that talk being revived at all?
It comes up periodically. I think there will always be proponents for that idea. It's not something that we at AIA, the manufacturers, have a strong point of view on one way or the other There's always risk at creating new bureaucratic entities and making sure that you don't create gaps and seams when you do that. On the other hand from time to time this is a tool that's been employed. For example, the new Space Force in the Department of Defense, in order to protect budgets from being a bill payer for something else. Because I do think what we see in this NOTAM issue is the fact that we need to be continually investing in the systems that are supporting safety and certification at the FAA.
Eric, you brought up an interesting point I think, well really both of your answers are about the danger of added layers of bureaucracy. You talked about FAA, the need for the FAA to maintain its global leadership. The 2020 bill that reformed certification -- it did a lot to reform certification. I think most people agree there's a lot of good things in there, but I think some in the industry were a little bit concerned about the prescriptive nature that Congress took, and some of the things that they're requiring the FAA to do on the product approval side now. Is there concern from your members that perhaps that set a precedent that could place the US at a disadvantage if it's applied to some things like AAM or some of the other issues out there?
I think there's always a concern when Congress gets prescriptive that it could slow down the innovation process. We always want to make sure safety is first, but that year over year over year improvement in safety has been the result of getting a better and better relationship between industry and the regulators over time, and each side doing what it does best. The FAA cannot be expected to build a workforce that has all the technical expertise that resides in industry, so that partnership is important, and we don't want other countries agencies to end up being the place that move faster and therefore spur innovation outside the United States.
Eric, you talked about the importance of workforce. We hear that everywhere. You were a Secretary of the Army and obviously it's an issue in DOD now. So in practical terms how do you help the FAA with the workforce it needs?
Well, let me start since you've given the opportunity to talk about the industry side. There are a lot of provisions we hope to see in the FAA reauthorization, jobs training programs, et cetera, that will help grow that workforce on the industry side. But I think the FAA is not unique in the difficulty that the government is having in finding the workforce that it needs, that understands industry, that understands the technical issues that can then be that good partner on the government side to make sure that we're certifying with the proper pace and not slowing down, because there is a wave of new technology coming, things that we've always done on the ground that now we can envision doing off the ground. And so it's a multidimensional problem and could just slow down very quickly if we're not prepared for it. And it's not unique to the FAA. I was up in Montreal last month at IKAO preaching this exact same thing to the council, that the regulatory bodies need to get organized to prepare for what's coming their way.
Eric, again on the issue of air traffic control, I I think, and within the air traffic control industry, you hear that the FAAs facilities and equipment account, which is their capital account, has been systemically and chronically underfunded. Just looking to see what's appropriated for that in FY2024, it's in the neighborhood of $3 billion, but that hasn't changed significantly in 15 years or so. Is there a need for Congress to step up with more funding overall for air traffic control? The FAA does have the benefit of something under the order of $5 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed in 2021, but that's kind of a one-time injection. Do you see a need for it to rethink overall the funding levels that Congress appropriates for the FAA?
I do. These investments always end up being the bill payers. It was true at DOD, it's true at the FAA, and they just aggregate over time. The NOTAM issue I think is indicative of that. The FAA did the right things, safety was prioritized, but when you have sort of a single point of failure that puts you in that position, where one person is able to do something accidentally like that, it's to me indicative of the fact that we're under investing in that infrastructure. And again, it's just going to get more crowded. Adding AAM, all of the issues with air traffic management, when you think about launch into space, this is a problem that is just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger over time and we need to make sure the foundations are there to support it.
Just a follow-up on the advanced air mobility side, I think the FAA has about four or five AAM vehicles in the certification pipeline that are getting close to being able to enter service. From an industry perspective, what more perhaps or what could be done within the next FAA reauthorization bill to support that industry? There has been legislation passed, for instance the Advanced Air Mobility Coordination and Leadership Act, which creates a committee at the Department of Transportation level to drive that. But is there anything from the industry perspective that you would like to see in FAA reauthorization to support the ongoing development of advanced air mobility?
There's a lot of great work going on at the FAA, no question. The studies still show that the long pole and the tent for AAM could very likely the regulatory process. And it's great they've got these things in the pipeline now, but as more new entrants come to play, new technology is developed, and the traffic is more diffused because there's more things up there, it's just going to get more complicated.
So I'd say to beat a dead horse here, one thing we want in, one thing we don't want in. What we want in is support to keep a strong robust workforce at FAA that can do this work, and move with the speed of the innovators. And then the second is to make sure that we don't get too prescriptive as we were discussing earlier, on how to go about the certification process. That the FAA and industry have improved this year over year, over year, and that speed is important, that still prioritizes safety.
And then you add of course the sustainability aspects and requirements that are coming in as we go forward. It's a complex problem. We want to make sure that the FAA remains a good partner in this.
Eric, we're running short on time, but I wanted to give you the floor for the final comments. Your board is meeting this week. What are AIAs top legislative priorities for the rest of the year?
I think like every association we are every single year focused on the budget and the budget process, trying to avoid continuing resolutions, which are just incredibly dysfunctional and efficient and expensive ways to operate, sends a very confusing signal to industry, but also makes it hard for government partners. The defense side of our business of course has one customer. It's the federal government. And so when they don't have a CR or don't have a budget or there's a shutdown, or we hit the debt ceiling or what have you, it creates problems for both sides of that equation.
So I would say that in addition to that we're looking carefully at the regulatory climate. There have been lots of new expectations and requirements placed on the industry side, especially around sustainability, and it's that the market is demanding increased sustainability. So that is a competitive advantage for anybody who succeeds better than a competitor in that. But there are seemingly new and layered and bureaucratic requirements being placed on industry that are getting harder and harder and harder, and making it harder for new entrants, for smaller companies to compete and stay in the space.
Eric Fanning, we know you have a very busy week, we really appreciate you carving out a little time to talk with all of our listeners. I’ve got to echo one thing you said, there really is a lot of great work going on in the FAA and we shouldn't overlook that, and we don't.
That is a wrap for this week's Check 6 Podcast. Special thanks to our podcast editor in London, Guy Ferneyhough. Don't miss the next episode by subscribing to Check 6 and your podcast app of choice. And one last request of our listeners. If you're listening to us on Apple podcast and want to support this podcast please leave us a star rating or a review. Thank you for your time, and have a great week.