Cantwell Presses FAA Head on Impact of Budget Cuts to Washington State Communities

At Commerce Hearing, Cantwell receives update on Federal Aviation Administration’s review of Boeing 787

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, questioned Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta about the potential impact to Washington state communities of FAA budget cuts to air traffic control tower programs and to the implementation of the new NextGen GPS system. Several Washington state contract air traffic control towers are slated for closure on June 15, under the FAA’s sequestration plan.

At today’s hearing -- entitled “Aviation Safety: FAA’s Progress on Key Safety Initiatives” -- Cantwell also asked Administrator Huerta for an update on the FAA’s process for reviewing the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s battery system and returning it to flight. Huerta reported that Boeing has completed its 20 needed tests and provided documentation, which the FAA is currently reviewing. Huerta added that the FAA is reviewing the original Extended Twin-Engine Operations (ETOPs) certification which allowed the 787 to fly up to three hours from the nearest airport.

Cantwell highlighted the significance of the ongoing review process to Washington state and the nation.

“So Mr. Chairman, I look forward to receiving these final reports and recommendations by all entities,” said Cantwell at today’s hearing. “And like everyone else we want these planes to return safely to flight. And yes there are many people in the state of Washington, over 85,000 people directly or indirectly, thousands of others indirectly as part of the supply chain, I can guarantee you they want to get it right.”

Huerta told Cantwell that he will personally make the decision on whether to return the 787 to flight. “It was my decision to ground the fleet and I would be making the recommendation going forward,” he said.

Video of Cantwell’s opening statement here.

Cantwell also pointed to the consequences in Washington state of continuing with the closure of air traffic control towers because of the sequester. Last week Cantwell sent a letter with a bipartisan group of six other Senate and House aviation leaders urging the FAA to prevent the closure of 149 air traffic control towers across the country. The 149 contract towers – which are operated by contractors for the FAA – are scheduled to close on June 15. The FAA also plans to close 40 additional federally funded towers, including Paine Field in Everett and Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake.

Five contract towers in Washington state would be among the contractor towers closed under the current plan: Renton Municipal Airport, Tacoma Narrows Airport, Yakima Air Terminal/McAllister Field, Felts Field in Spokane, and Olympia Regional Airport. View the full list here.

“And these closures cause major disruptions,” Cantwell told Huerta today. “For example at Felts Field in Spokane, which is an area that serves air medical services for four states and also Paine Field in Everett which is the hub of a large aerospace manufacturer. These tower closures would have an impact. So I hope Mr. Chairman we can resolve these issues.”

Cantwell also raised other concerns about the impact of sequestration on:

Equipment in the contract towers slated for closure: Cantwell asked about the removal of equipment at the towers slated for closure. She pointed out that if the towers remain open but they don’t have communication equipment it would be hard to continue operating. She pressed for a clear answer. Huerta replied that in most cases the equipment will stay but in certain limited circumstances ‘we might come to a different conclusion.’

The rollout of safety rules: Cantwell pointed out that Congress passed a major piece of safety legislation that established the implementation of rules on issues from qualification of pilots to runway incursions. Cantwell asked Huerta if these rules would be delayed because of the sequester. Huerta responded that they remain on track for pilot qualification and rules related to crew member training. But others might be delayed depending on the availability of hours for staffers.

Implementation of NextGen: Cantwell looked for an update on the implementation of the new NextGen GPS system. Huerta replied that because of the sequester work groups made up of FAA employees and contractors deploying NextGen might have to be pulled back, delaying the implementation of new technologies.

Video of Cantwell’s question and answers here.

In January 2012, Cantwell spearheaded the reauthorization of the FAA through 2015. One of the main provisions of the reauthorization was the NextGen GPS system. Implementing NextGen, a GPS-based air traffic control system, will help reduce flight delays and spur the innovation economy by bringing air traffic control technology into the 21st Century. The FAA projects the system will help reduce 2018 flight delays by at least 20 percent and save 1.4 billion gallons of aviation fuel.

As Chair of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee Cantwell has made safety issues related to air travel a high priority. At a subcommittee hearing in May 2011 on air traffic control safety oversight, Cantwell said the subcommittee would play an ‘active role’ on oversight of all the issues affecting air traffic control operations. The hearing followed a number of incidents where air traffic controllers fell asleep while on duty.

Complete transcript of opening remarks and question and answers follows.

Senator Cantwell Opening Statement

Thank you Mr. Chairman. Before I get started I wanted to honor the victims of the horrific event that happened in Boston. I know that all Washingtonians – and all Americans – also stand with our friends in Massachusetts. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this senseless tragedy.

And we honor the first responders who protect the lives of innocent Americans. And I want to thank you, Administrator Huerta, for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rapid response, quickly securing Boston’s airspace – establishing temporary flight restrictions over the immediate vicinity of the explosion.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this important hearing. It has been just over a year since we have passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and there is a lot to do and talk about when it comes to safety.

I want to thank the witnesses, especially Administrator Huerta and Chairwoman Hersman for updated me constantly on the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) review of the 787 battery issue. I appreciate the intensity and focus that both of your agencies have provided for important aviation issues and I look forward to continuing to be updated on this issue.

I also want to thank Mr. Guzzetti for his technical assistance on the medical safety legislation when you were at NTSB several years ago. And Dr. Dillingham for your institutional knowledge on aviation issues, it is very welcome.

While we are here today to talk about key safety issues, there is also a lot to talk about when it comes to sequestration and the impacts on safety and operations at over 200 air traffic towers slated for closure. I appreciate my colleague, Senator Moran’s, efforts to try to restore funding. In my home state, eight towers are on the closure list.

And these closures cause major disruptions. For example at Felts Field in Spokane, which is an area that serves air medical services for four states and also Paine Field in Everett which is the hub of large aerospace manufacturer. These tower closures would have an impact. So I hope Mr. Chairman we can resolve these issues.

Mr. Chairman prior to your Chairmanship you were the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Aviation Subcommittee for more than a decade. And during that time period you left a legacy of achievements on aviation safety.

As a testament to the work of this committee and the work of key agencies and industry players there have been no major domestic crashes of major airlines in more than a decade. And in a response to the smaller Colgan crash that has been referred to by my colleagues, your committee held nine hearings. Passing meaningful reform legislation in 2010, some of which has been implemented but other parts require final action.

For one, the FAA must implement the rules required by your legislation, including: pilot qualifications; pilot training; pilot mentoring and professionalism; database issues.

Other safety aviation issues include:

–ensuring that regional carriers meet the same safety standards as major airlines;

–addressing air traffic controller fatigue issues;

–reducing operational errors, and including runway incursions;

–improving general aviation safety;

–completing the medical safety rules;

–introducing unmanned air vehicles; and,

–improving the voluntary reporting system.

And we also must remember that there are a number of safety initiatives in the NextGen system.

Also, last month the NTSB released its interim factual report on a key issue: The lithium ion battery incident aboard the Boeing 787 at Logan Airport operated by Japan Airlines.

Next week, the NTSB will be holding a symposium on that issue. The FAA has been performing a comprehensive review of the 787’s critical systems focusing on the electrical system. And since April 8, the FAA has been evaluating Boeing’s test results on the modified battery. So the NTSB’s ongoing investigation is important and the interim factual report provides information regarding the incident at Logan Airport including descriptions of the damage in components and its planned ongoing investigations.

So Mr. Chairman, I look forward to receiving these final reports and recommendations by all entities. And like everyone else we want these planes to return safely to flight. And yes there are many people in the state of Washington, over 85,000 people directly or indirectly, thousands of others indirectly as part of the supply chain, I can guarantee you they want to get it right.

The FAA and NTSB are doing their respective jobs on this issue and I thank them for that. And the many hours that both of the agencies have put forth. Mr. Chairman I look forward to working with you on a myriad of these aviation issues over the next several months. But I know we’ve talked about this we want to continue to hold hearings on NextGen oversight, the proposed American Airlines/US Airways merger, competitiveness in the aerospace manufacturing, development strategies to fostering industry growth, and maintaining and upgrading our important airport infrastructure. All of these issues are part of our safety mechanisms as well. So I thank you for holding this important hearing. I look forward to the witnesses’ testimony today. Thank you.

Senator Cantwell Question and Answer Part 1

Senator Cantwell: Administrator Huerta, I truly appreciate your willingness to become FAA administrator. It would have been enough of a commitment to be FAA Administrator under the implementation of NextGen that in it of itself would have been a Herculean task. To take on this task in the midst of sequestration is another twist and turn. You have gained a reputation in this town for being a straight shooter. In my interactions with you, you’ve always been information rich so I was hoping I could follow on with what some of my colleagues were talking about at least in this first round about this tower issue. First of all the Department of Transportation with so many protective programs, it seems to me the FAA is getting a disproportionate share of the impact. Is that an accurate assessment?

Michael Huerta, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration: That is correct. The way the sequester law is written it exempts about three quarters of the budget of the Department of Transportation; essentially all the grant programs, which are primarily the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration. It also exempts our Airport Improvement Program, which is about 3.35 billion dollars. And so therefore the impact does fall disproportionately on the operating parts of DOT .

Senator Cantwell: And unlike some of the floor activity we had to do a more surgical approach with various aspects of the budget. The Moran Amendment, which might have helped in this area wasn’t brought up. You’ve been having to deal with this in a very blunt way. So I have a couple questions about that. On this tower issue and I think I’ve mentioned to you both in issues I did in my statement earlier about both Paine Field – in the middle of a big commercial aviation manufacturer- and Felts Field in Spokane, which is in the same proximity of the Spokane Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base. So they may have gotten beat out by some California cities in suing the federal government over proposed closures but they are going to be close behind or joining that case because they feel very strongly about this. You and I have had a chance to talk about this issue as it relates to your analysis but I have a question. Prior to the agency decision and then revoking it and saying it will be implemented in June, was it the FAA’s intention to remove the equipment from these towers?

Michael Huerta, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration: No. We’re working through all of those decisions on a case-by-case basis. And in some instances local airports and sponsors have asked if they could retain equipment. In some instances there is an interrelationship between, for example, communications equipment in the tower, how it relates to the communication equipment at the airport. So we are working through individual airport sponsors.

Senator Cantwell: Well wouldn’t that be devastating to have this equipment removed? Because then how would you go back if the sequester issue is resolved or a community response was activated how would you deal with the loss of equipment? So I think we need a clear answer about equipment as well. We hope the answer is that the equipment stays.

Michael Huerta, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration: For the most part the equipment stays. But there are certain limited circumstances where we might come to different conclusion there. We can talk about some specific facilities.

Senator Cantwell: Well I think as my colleagues have mentioned this is a very important issue. When a community of a significant size says they are going to sue over this issue I take it very seriously. And I hope that, Mr. Chairman, we can resolve this issue on the floor or some instance. Because I think while the public understands the tightening of the belt I don’t know that they understand the FAA within the Department of Transportation is taking very direct hit on this. And I think it has various communities and in my state concerned about it. I wondered, Mr. Guzzetti mentioned, that part of this safety culture and regime that we have to establish is implementing the mandates of Congress. So obviously we did in a major piece of safety legislation ask for various rules – on qualification of pilots and training and mentoring and database issues – Mr. Dillingham mentioned this issue of runway incursions and getting the right data. So is the sequestration going to impact us getting those rules?

Michael Huerta, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration: Well the rules have different schedules they are working on. I was already asked about the issue of pilot qualifications and I said that we would make the August timetable for that and we do intend to do so. Another one that is an extremely high priority for us is the rule related to crew member training. And you’ll recall at my confirmation hearing last year I committed to completing that rule by October of this year. We are on track and we will complete that rule.

Senator Cantwell: So will the sequestration affect any of the rulemaking?

Michael Huerta, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration: In other rulemakings I would expect to see delays. But what it depends on is availability of hours I have for people in the rulemaking office. And across the agency to do the needed work to get these rules done in a timely fashion. If I have fewer hours available to me it does affect the full scope of everything the FAA does.

Senator Cantwell: Well as Mr. Guzzetti said it’s important to get these mandates filled. So Mr. Chairman I think we need to keep looking at this issue. I think it’s important to understand what isn’t going to get done during sequestration as these important rules that we mandated we want to see them implemented. I didn’t even mention the cargo issue. We’ve implemented rules but people who are flying in our skies want to know that those who are flying cargo planes also meet the same kind of standards as other pilots for fatigue and operations. So thank you Mr. Chairman.

Senator Cantwell Question and Answer Part 2

Senator Cantwell: Thank you Mr. Chairman. Administrator Huerta can we add to this list too what is the impact on NextGen implementation from sequestration? If you have a general idea you can tell me now and if you want to get back to us. But what will the impact on that be?

Michael Huerta, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration: I’ll provide you a general sense of what we’re seeing this year. And then for the record provide a more detailed response. Within the current year the principal impact we will see is related to the need to bring operations personnel back to their home facilities to work on day-to-day operations. What that means is that we are pulling individuals off of what we call collaborative work groups. These are work groups we’ve set-up with FAA employees to work with contractors and to work with our engineering and planning staffs that are deploying NextGen. To actually work through the details of how is this system going to handle live traffic. And this is an extremely important aspect of what we do. In the past the agency hadn’t done as much of that, that has gotten into trouble on large programs. A few years ago there was a program called ERAM, which is the modernization of our en-route platform, and once we adopted these practices we found we had a much more seamless transition to new technology. And so the need to pull back resources and personnel from these activities will delay the implementation of some of these new technologies.

Senator Cantwell: Aren’t there some competitiveness issues with us getting NextGen implemented?

Michael Huerta, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration: Well where it affects us right now is in our program where we are focusing on the optimization of airspace procedures. That’s the deployment of performance based navigation that has the ability to reduce fuel burn, reduce costs, reduce emissions and noise and impacts on local communities. And we have a number of these going around the country. You probably have the best known one up there in Seattle, an initiative called Greener Skies. It does slow down the deployment of those for two reasons. One is we don’t have the people that can work through the operational details that were able to deploy between now and the fiscal year. The second aspect of that is development and maintain procedures in and of itself as an expenditure – for contractors, for design, publication and training.

Senator Cantwell: So I’d love to get more details, a written response so we can share that with our colleagues about what the impact on that is. So what are the mechanisms the FAA is going to use to resolve the adverse conditions on the 787 issue? Is that something the Secretary does as an official final decision? Or how do you decide about ETOPS issues? How do you decide about all of that, could you give us some idea?

Michael Huerta, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration: Sure. What Boeing presented to us last month was a certification plan. And the certification plan had several components to it. But it essentially resulted in a redesign of the battery systems within the airplane. A containment system such that should provide another layer of safety. And then also included, and this was something that was negotiated with them where we asked for thresholds to be met in terms of maintaining the highest levels of safety. Once the certification plan was approved by us last month, then they embarked on a series of tests that we required, about 20 distinct tests, to prove that the system would operate as designed. Boeing has completed the testing and has provided a very extensive set of documents to the FAA and those documents are currently under review right now. And that will result in us making a final determination as to whether the aircraft can return to flight. Coinciding with that review was the review where we went back and looked at our original determination related to ETOPS flights. And in there is the airplane when it was grounded was certified for ETOPS of 180 minutes. And so the question for us was at that level. And so that review was a concurrent review ongoing and when we make our final determination with respect to return to flight we also answer that question.

Senator Cantwell: But is this something the Secretary decides? Or the FAA decides?

Michael Huerta, Administrator Federal Aviation Administration: This is a determination of recommendation that’s made by all technical experts. It was my decision to ground the fleet and I would be making the recommendation going forward.

Senator Cantwell Question and Answer Part 3

Senator Cantwell: The only other question I have Mr. Dillingham was related to the process for composites. We were involved with composite manufacturing and getting a center of excellence established, which was a program to help a collaboration between research institutions, the FAA, and manufactures identify issues. I think you did a report on that certification process in which you think that that worked well. Is that a model for what we should be doing?

Dr. Gerald Dillingham, Director of Civil Aviation Issues, Government Accountability Office: We looked in-depth at the certification of the composite aspect of the Dreamliner 787 and in all cases we found the FAA did an excellent job. It could be a model for future situations such as that because clearly composites are going to be an ever increasing part of aviation manufacturing as it has been for decades now. It will continue to grow.

Senator Cantwell: Mr. Secretary in the balancing of all these issues next June – the towers, sequestration, battery issues, all of that – how do you prioritize these rulemakings Mr. Guzzetti was talking about being so essential. Do you prioritize them in a ranking? Mr. Chairman having oversight of the Coast Guard committee for a while and then being challenged with the implementation of what was then called Deepwater Acquisition program. We got to a point where so many members had so many interests in these various prioritizes and I could go into the issue of the helicopter and medical issues. Do you prioritize these rulemakings within the agencies so we can give members some idea of their prioritization?

Dr. Gerald Dillingham, Director of Civil Aviation Issues, Government Accountability Office: We do. We go through a regular process of identifying what are deadlines for rulemakings. What are available resources – every rulemaking requires a level of technical expertise associated with developing and ultimately promulgated and implemented a rule. How it relates to staff that are available or contractors that were available needed to perform the cost benefit analysis that Senator Coats asked about. And so it’s marrying the technical expertise that we have with the time tables that have been developed and the complexity of the rule and then the benefit that the rule will enable us to achieve as a result of that. And that’s a regular process that we do go through.

Senator Cantwell: Well it would be, I think, nice for the larger aviation community to have a sense of the prioritization of those rules. I’m sure some of it can be done simultaneously but in the context of people being able to weigh in on that prioritization so we just have a little bit more definition on what’s coming next and when. And I know you commented today, which was great, on the actual pilot rules that had to be implemented in their time frame. Since we just went through this entire list of things you’re responsible for in a shrinking budget, I think part of our challenge is to communicate exactly what that means from a time frame to our constituents. I would appreciate that. Mr. Chairman, thank you very much.