Conflicting Congressional guidance needs be translated into some Cohesive Guidance in 2015

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The two articles below exhibit a duality of opinion. When one considers that the 535 women and men who sit on Capitol Hill are essentially the FAA’s Board of Directors, such mixed messages make it hard for Administrator Huerta to manage his 47,000 career civil servants.

Not surprisingly, the general populace holds the FAA’s job in high regard. In fact the Harris Poll, which assesses the public’s opinion of all of the federal agencies, ranked the FAA as #2 with a 75% approval rating (second to the US Mint’s 79% which may reflect the hope that that institution will share its work product with the poll responders)[survey release 02/15/2015]. The US Congress appears not to share their constituents’ high regard for the aviation safety organization.

The first article involves some positive feedback for the allocation of $5,000,000 to 21 universities for the study of UAS regulatory policies. The research project is called Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE). Their mission is to identify issues and develop solutions to integrating UASs into the National Airspace System. Their work product is expected to define policies which will preserve safety while promoting this new industry.

A delegation of the Congress, U.S. Senators Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), John Hoeven (R., N.D.), Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and U.S. Representatives Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.) and Gregg Harper (R., Miss.), met with the FAA Administrator. Sen. Cochran from the state of the institution with lead responsibilities for ASSURE is quoted as saying:

“Unmanned aircraft technology is here to stay, and we are all excited that our states will have an active role in figuring out the safest and most efficient way to incorporate this evolving technology into our airspace to assist on issues ranging from precision agriculture to disaster recovery…We are interested in continuing to support what will be a collaborative process to address the complicated nature of integrating unmanned aircraft into our national airspace system, as well as privacy and other issues that arise with their use.”

Sen. Murkowski added:

“From the Alaska perspective, unmanned aerial systems can be game changers for my state – to work around our vast distances and lack of infrastructure.  Whether in the form of Arctic research, delivering goods in the Bush, fire-fighting or policing in rural areas, UAS deserve serious and thoughtful consideration as we map out an intelligent rule book for their use and applications.”

From two leading Senators, those are very positive, encouraging remarks.

About the same time, the full House Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 to approve the FY 2016 Transportation Budget. While the total dollars were bumped up from the FY 2015 numbers, the bill deleted $22 million from the proposed nearly $16 billion FAA budget to help transfer funds for the Washington Metro Transit Authority. This follows a fairly long trend of decisions by Congress to reduce the FAA’s budget.

While the policy affirmation about UAS is on a micro basis and the as-of-yet unenacted budget reduction decision reflects a negative macro judgment, the overall Congressional judgment is confusing for the FAA executives. It would be more instructive for Congress to spend some time reviewing the FAA’s mission and performance. Based on such a thoughtful analysis, more specific guidance to the FAA would be appropriate.

Thankfully, 2015 is the year for Congress to enact the FAA Reauthorization Act. That final legislation must reflect what their the collective wisdom on the following strategic questions, at a minimum is:

  • what the FAA’s mission should be,
  • what resources are necessary to meet those safety expectations,
  • what capital projects are a priority,
  • what operational elements are satisfactory/unsatisfactory and
  • what the FAA’s finances will look like over the long term.

Without such clear guidance, aviation will be hurt and the shadow of FAA’s problems will envelope the Capitol.

ARTICLES:

Mississippi State University, Drexel University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kansas State University, Montana State University, New Mexico State University, North Carolina State University, Oregon State University, University of Alabama-Huntsville, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, University of Kansas, University of North Dakota, Wichita State University, Ohio State University, University of California-Davis, Auburn University (associate member), Concordia University (associate member), Indiana State University (associate member), Louisiana Tech University, Tuskegee University (associate member), and University of Southampton (associate member).

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