FAA faces scrutiny from lawmakers after recent near misses: 'Alarm bells should be going off'

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FAA has ‘alarm bells going off’ over recent runway collision incidents: Casey Murray

Southwest Pilots Union President Casey Murray calls for infrastructure improvements to the air traffic control system.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) faced scrutiny from lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing on the agency's reauthorization following a series of systemic breakdowns and runway incursions in recent months. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing comes on the heels of several potentially dangerous incidents. 

The FAA's Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system, which alerts pilots and air crews about hazards and delays, suffered an outage during routine maintenance on January 11th that caused the first nationwide ground stop since the September 11th terror attacks. On January 13th, a runway incursion at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport resulted in an aborted takeoff and near collision between two airliners. An airliner "bumped" another plane while taxiing at JFK on January 18th. And on February 4th, a cargo plane aborted its landing at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport after a passenger plane was preparing for takeoff on the same runway. 

Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) noted that while there have been no passenger fatalities on domestic flights in 11 of the past 13 years and general aviation accidents have been on a downward trend over the last two decades, recent incidents underscore "why getting an FAA reauthorization done on time is critical" and show "that even following the safest decade in our history, our aviation system is clearly in need of urgent attention."

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An aircraft takes off from O’Hare International Airport on January 18, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Scott Olson/Getty Images / Getty Images)

Ranking Member Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) struck a similar note with his opening remarks, saying that "commercial aviation fatalities in the U.S. have decreased by 95% over the last 25 years" and, "While this downward trend clearly demonstrates the great strides made in U.S. aviation safety and should be applauded, more work still needs to be done."

Aviation Subcommittee Chair Garret Graves (R-La.) echoed those sentiments, saying "the alarm bells should be going off across the aviation industry" as "systems are stretched and stressed to capacity" and that demand for air travel is projected to go "nowhere but up."

David Boulter, who is the acting associate administrator of the FAA and is the agency's executive director of flight standards, told lawmakers that, "In my mind, complacency and stagnation are equal threats to a safety culture."

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A Southwest Airlines plane takes off for flight. The company is dealing with cancellation issues for nearly a week in October 2021. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee / AP Images)

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy urged lawmakers to increase the amount of cockpit data recorded, as the current two-hour limitation has hampered recent investigations.

"We continue to have investigations such as the incident last month at JFK and now Austin, where the data isn't available to our investigators due to the current time limitation. We've recommended that the FAA require new and existing aircraft have 25-hour recorders," Homendy said. "That's consistent with the standards of our European counterparts and adopted by ICAO rather than the current two-hour recording that is the standard in the U.S."

Another topic that came up was whether there is a shortage of certified pilots, which airlines have cited as a reason they've cut some routes.

Captain Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, said the main issue is a "training backlog" and that "there are more pilots today at major airlines than there were pre-pandemic." Despite the uptick in pilot numbers, Ambrosi said "they're flying less because they're making their way through training. So we have a situation where when these pilots get back to where they belong, they'll be more efficient and we'll be able to do more."

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An American Airlines jet moves along the runway at Laguardia AIrport on November 10, 2022 in the Queens borough of New York City. The airline industry has rebounded this year and is looking forward to a busy holiday season.  (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images / Getty Images)

Lawmakers expressed concerns about diminished access to air travel for smaller, rural communities as airlines trim the routes they offer. Ambrosi said, "I would suggest that the airlines' view is economics. They're flying many of those airplanes to more profitable cities now. They've upgauged over the last decade." 

Ambrosi was asked whether raising the retirement age for airline pilots, which is currently set at 65, would alleviate give airlines a bigger pool of pilots to service more routes. He replied that the issue "goes beyond" just raising the retirement age and said that more senior pilots tend to fly international routes, so when they're required to fly domestic routes only, it requires them to fly a different aircraft and go through another training cycle which could've been used by a younger pilot with a longer-term ability to fill the position.

Following the recent runway incursions, the presence of the Airport Surface Detection System – Model X (ASDE-X) at major airports was also a focus of the hearing. The ASDE-X is a surface radar that tracks the movement of aircraft and vehicles along the runways and taxiways at the 35 airports where it's installed.

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Homendy said that while it played a role in helping avert disaster at JFK, the system wasn't in place in Austin: "It was the airport surface detection equipment that notified the air traffic controller that there was an impending collision and that only exists at 35 airports across the United States. It does not exist in Austin. And so we're going to take a look at that as part of our investigation."

The FAA was last reauthorized by Congress in 2018, which was the first significant multi-year reauthorization since 2012 and the first five-year reauthorization since 1982. Lawmakers will develop the new FAA legislation in the coming months with the goal of enacting a long-term reauthorization before the current authorities elapse on September 30, 2023.

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