Pilots, Air Traffic Controllers, NTSB Tell Committee: Senate FAA Reauthorization Bill Key to Boosting Aviation Safety in Wake of Alarming Close Calls and Near Misses

November 9, 2023

Hearing finds broad agreement that key safety tools in legislation needed to alleviate ATC workforce shortage, deploy runway tech, upgrade critical systems 

“I think you can see that what we need is the tools to make sure that it's the safest possible transportation system” Sen. Cantwell tells CNN’s Pete Muntean ahead of hearing

At a hearing today in the Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovation, witnesses representing U.S. airline pilots, air traffic controllers, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told senators that the most important action needed to address “near miss” incidents and boost safety is to pass the Senate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bill to make key investments in the air traffic controller workforce, runway safety technology and critical infrastructure improvements.

“…[W]e have cited staffing shortages, which lead to scheduling issues, fatigue, lack of or deficient supervisory oversight, distraction, ineffective scanning and the need for value-added training,” said Sen. Cantwell, Chair of the Commerce Committee. “That is why we need the additional FAA Air Traffic Controllers that are in the FAA bill of over 3,000 people…. We cannot have people working 6 days a week. We need people who have the ample amount of rest and capability to deal with, as my colleague Senator Duckworth said, probably one of the most stressful and challenging jobs there is.”

Senator Cantwell’s bipartisan FAA Reauthorization Act includes key tools to address serious close calls and improve safety by investing in hiring and training more air traffic controllers, further deploying airport runway safety technology, and modernizing systems and infrastructure.

“First and foremost, the bill not only provides funding and stability for the FAA and FAA programs, but also for the latest safety technology on runways, for the hiring of more air traffic controllers, for workforce development and a host of technological additives…,” said Capt. Jason Ambrosi, President of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Rich Santa, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association echoed Capt. Ambrosi, telling senators: “The most important action Congress can take for the safety of the NAS would be to pass a long-term, comprehensive FAA Reauthorization bill before the end of the year.”

The United States has experienced a number of serious runway incursions and near-misses at airports across the country, a 44 percent increase over the last year. The FAA is working to deploy new surface situational awareness technology that tracks runway aircraft and vehicle movements to prevent collisions. So far, this technology, like the Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE-X), has been deployed at 43 airports across the nation, including Seattle-Tacoma International (Sea-Tac) Airport.

“In the airports where we have this technology, guess what, things have worked well,” Sen. Cantwell said. “The areas where we haven’t – this is why we need this legislation because we are authorizing $18.2 billion to make sure that all of our large and mid-sized airports have this technology deployed.”

“I'm assuming all of you support this investment?” Sen. Cantwell asked the witnesses.

“Absolutely,” said both Capt. Ambrosi and Mr. Santa.

“Absolutely,” Jennifer Homendy, Chair of the NTSB, responded. “It has prevented some almost-accidents. And so we need the technology.”

“We have to give the FAA the resources to invest. They need those resources. So we are strongly supportive of giving them the funding that they need to succeed at their jobs,” Chair Homendy concluded.

The Senate FAA Reauthorization bill specifically invests in the air traffic controller workforce, runway safety technology and airport infrastructure:

  • Workforce: The current shortage of air traffic controllers is approximately 3,000. The bill would help close this gap in the FAA’s controller staffing, leverage technology to reduce the training backlog and authorize $67.5 billion over five years to fund FAA operations and increases in controller staffing.
  • Safety Technology: “Surface situational awareness technology” that helps prevent near-misses is currently deployed at only 43 commercial airports. The bill directs the FAA to expand the deployment of the latest runway safety technology to more airports.
  • Infrastructure Investments: These near misses also highlight the need to upgrade FAA’s communication, navigation, and network infrastructure – this is the software, hardware, and physical underlying our national airspace system. The bill authorizes $18.2 billion to fund the modernization of these FAA systems. This includes funding to upgrade the NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions) system.

Senator Cantwell has a long history of being a staunch advocate for stronger aviation safety and workforce development. She authored the Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act (ACSAA), that implemented new aircraft safety and certification reforms in the wake of the Boeing 737 MAX crashes. Recently, Senator Cantwell successfully shepherded Michael Whitaker’s unanimous Senate confirmation to be the new FAA Administrator. Senator Cantwell held a series of aviation hearings this year leading up to the introduction of the FAA Reauthorization bill, including hearings on building the workforce, implementing safety reforms and upgrading the FAA’s NOTAM system.