Senate Commerce Hearing Illustrative of all the Help which the FAA gets and how converting “Critics” to “Doers” Might Help

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ARTICLE: Aviation Safety: FAA’s Progress on Key Safety Initiatives

On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on the FAA’s progress on a number of key safety initiatives. Chairman Rockefeller established the parameters of the hearing, which lasted two hours, in his opening statement. The senior Senator from West Virginia outlined sequestration’s impact on NextGen and the 149 Contract Control Towers, the B-787 recertification and an update on the FAA’s implementation of FAA Modernization and Reform Act and the Airline Safety Act.

Senators Thune, Cantwell, Ayotte, Blunt, Pryor, Coats, Nelson and McCaskill directed most of their questions to Administrator Huerta. The head of the FAA did a credible job of responding to their questions.

In response to repeated questions that the Administrator provide the committee with the FAA’s safety analysis, the Honorable Mr. Huerta said that he would “provide a response for the record,” a somewhat ambiguous response, which Chairman Rockefeller ruled was a “YES” answer to the Senator from Missouri’s request for the study.

A number of both Democratic and Republican Senators asked very pointed questions about the FAA criteria as to the closure of the contract control towers in their respective states. The Administrator recited the macro criteria established in the ATO’s CCC’s letter, but he never directly addressed the specific questions. Sen. Rockefeller, somewhat surprisingly, commented on the DoT/FAA’s lack of “transparency” on the issue.

Chairwoman Hersman demurred to answer the question of whether closure of Contract Towers was safe or not. She mentioned one NTSB investigation in which two aircraft collided on the ground with the control tower closed.

Senator Thune referenced a letter in which he, the full Committee Chairman, the Aviation Subcommittee Senate leaders and their House equivalents sent to the Secretary and the Administrator about their executive decisions on sequestration. The FAA Administrator’s oral answer did not add to the knowledge about those dollar cuts.

The Administrator committed to complying with the Safety Act’s deadline for issuing an NPRM on pilot qualifications. He also engaged Sen. McCaskill on her overriding issue—PEDs on airplanes.

Most significantly, in response to questions from Senator Cantwell about whether the Secretary or the Administrator will decide on the B-787’s reauthorization for service, Mr. Huerta asserted that such authority has been and always will be vested in his office exclusively.

What was equally interesting was that the panel included three other witnesses– the Chair of the NTSB, a Director from GAO and the DoT Assistant Inspector General—all of whose primary jobs are to second guess the FAA. All had lengthy statements of advice as to how the Administrator might do his job better.

The Chairwoman (a former employee of this committee) had a detailed statement of what her Board has discovered about the B-787 in an investigation which Chairman Rockefeller characterized as “simultaneous,” but she did not indicate whether she would determine if the new batteries are “airworthy.”

Mr. Dillingham commended the FAA on the best years of aviation safety. He noted that the FAA has problems with inconsistent interpretations by the field personnel, with inadequate oversight of designees and inadequate oversight/analysis of AT operations on runways.

Mr. Guzetti recited his laundry list of FAA’s areas of improvement. His big three included improvement in the quality of ATC error data, oversight of repair stations and designees and the progress of their statutorily mandated safety rulemakings. He added a theme of the potential impact of sequestration on all three of these problem areas.

At the end of the hearing there was an overwhelming sense of the massive amount of “help” which the Administrator receives from his putative Board of Directors, the Senate. The legislators referenced several bills and numerous inquiries, all of which they thought the FAA must do immediately. The Constitution says that such input is their job.

But the three Ombudspersons who sat on the panel, what did they contribute? Simultaneous investigation, repetitive criticism and demanding that the FAA respond to each organization’s most wanted list or critical report.

Listening to all of that external help, it was also easy to jump to the suggestion that these three oversight organizations might be better utilized by changing their job descriptions from “critics” to “doers.” Perhaps if the GAO, OIG and NTSB staffs, heretofore identifying what the FAA does wrong, had their missions translated to writing rules, doing analyses, providing resources, the FAA might be on time with all projects.

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