Cantwell Tells Senate America Needs a Strong FAA Reauthorization for Safety

May 1, 2024

“[Recent Incidents] underscore why we need a strong authorization bill, why we need to implement safety improvements, why we need to invest in a safety workforce at the FAA, why we need strong consumer laws on the books that give consumers a right to a refund.

“The FAA Reauthorization bill does all those things. It provides the direction, it provides the resources, it helps us build that aviation workforce, and it helps us implement safety technology that will be part of the Next-Gen system and improve aviation and airport infrastructure nationwide.”

In remarks ahead of the Senate’s vote to begin consideration of the bipartisan, bicameral FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and chief architect of the legislation, explained why the bipartisan, bicameral bill sets clear and decisive priorities to improve safety and FAA oversight, strengthens protections for the flying public, boosts technological innovation, and modernizes our national airspace system for years to come.

Chair Senator Cantwell’s Remarks as Delivered: [AUDIO] [VIDEO]  

5-year Reauthorization of FAA, NTSB

Mr. President, we come to the floor, my colleagues have already been out here today. It's a great day for aviation because we have a product before the United States Senate and members will be asked to vote to move forward on consideration of this important aviation safety legislation. 

As my colleagues have already said, this is a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on the FAA Reauthorization. It is important to reauthorize both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board for another five years. We are not only giving them direction and resources to improve safety, but we're asking them to keep up to date on the implementation of the latest technologies that help us do just that. 

I want to thank my colleague, Senator Cruz, who was just on the Senate floor, for helping negotiate this through the Senate Commerce Committee. And I want to thank Chairman Graves and Ranking Member Larsen, from my state, for their participation and dedication to producing this bicameral, bipartisan legislation. And certainly, certainly, I want to thank Senators Duckworth and Moran who chair the subcommittee in the aviation area for their important contributions to this legislation.  

I also want to thank President Biden, Secretary Buttigieg, Administrator Whitaker, for helping us on all of the input as we moved forward on this legislation. Certainly, want to thank Senators Schumer, and Thune, and Duckworth, and Sinema who helped to negotiate key provisions of this as it relates to pilot safety and training.  

And I definitely, definitely, definitely, definitely want to thank the very hard work of our Committee majority staff and the Committee minority staff for working diligently on this important legislation.  

I can’t tell you how important it is at this point in time for us to show that we are paying attention to these issues.  

Aviation Safety in Wake of Airline Incidents, Close Calls

Over the last 12 months, several incidents, including a door plug blowout, a string of close calls at airports, have made the public question where we are with aviation safety.  

We need to show them that we are asking for implementing and holding accountable the FAA to a gold standard for safety. 

These incidents underscore why we need a strong authorization bill, why we need to implement safety improvements, why we need to invest in a safety workforce at the FAA, why we need strong consumer laws on the books that give consumers a right to a refund. 

The FAA Reauthorization bill does all those things. It provides the direction, it provides the resources, it helps us build that aviation workforce, and it helps us implement safety technology that will be part of the next-gen system and improve aviation and airport infrastructure nationwide.  

Some of my colleagues may think, well, FAA, okay it's an aviation bill, but what is behind this?  Aviation contributes 5% of our GDP. That's $1.9 trillion of economic activity and 11 million jobs.  

Getting this right is paramount.  

Addressing Workforce Challenges to Strengthen Safety

I think some people look at what's happened during COVID and say, everybody has workforce shortages, everybody has problems. The workforce everywhere. But when you have a workforce problem in aviation, it means you don't have the highest standards for safety.  

That is why we have to pass this legislation.  

Our bill gives the aviation workforce the tools and the platform they need. It's talking about machinists, about engineers, about mechanics, about pilots, about flight attendants, about baggage handlers, about maintenance workers, the people who are really part of the backbone of an aviation economy. 

It is simple. This bipartisan bill puts safety first. It says we are authorizing over $100 billion so that the FAA does meet that gold standard.  


We also are including a robust reauthorization of the National Transportation Safety Board. This organization has and needs to do its job with the resources to hire investigators, conduct thorough investigations, and produce the highest level of critical analysis to why, why we've had safety accidents. 

The NTSB needs to have the critical funding to carry out its important mission, like investigating Alaska Airlines flight 1282 and the train derailment of East Palestine. These are important missions that help inform us what is wrong with our systems and how they should be improved. Unless we have those inspectors at NTSB, and we've lost some of them lately, and some have retired, we need to continue to have these most critical investigators. 

This also funds the key safety improvements of our system. It requires new and manufactured commercial aircraft to be equipped, as my colleagues have mentioned, with a 25-hour cockpit voice recorder. The standard today is just two hours. And what unfortunately happened in the Alaska Air door plug issue, is that in those short two hours, where people were in the aftermath of the confusion, that two hours was overwritten.  

Now, we're asking the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate without the most critical information that would have told us exactly what was happening in the cockpit at that time: the voice recorder. This legislation is critical to have a mandate and never to have that overwritten in this time period, so we have enough time to investigate.  

The NTSB also will strengthen its board and its workforce. It investigates more than 2,600 accidents every year. However, it has had the same number of people and staff for decades. And that is why 33 more investigators would be better equipped and better able to understand emerging technologies.  

I want to thank Senator Klobuchar for her leadership. She and her provision on runway traffic and landing safety technology is helping us to reduce collisions or near-misses at airports. This invests in deploying this technology that NTSB accurately assessed has been saving lives at various airports and says it needs to be more deployed across the entire country. These critical airport technologies will require all medium- and large-hub airports to implement this within the next few years.  

Aviation Certification

Building on the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act, the bill that we based in the aftermath of the two Boeing MAX crashes, this bill continues to make reforms in aircraft certification to ensure that planes we fly meet the highest standards of the FAA.  

To further the reform certification, we require the FAA provide public notice and opportunity to comment on significant aviation product design changes. A lot of the confusion in the MAX incidents of the MCAS system is people said they didn't know or didn't understand. 

This provision ensures the transparency for those proposed exemptions for the current airworthiness standard. It puts the flying public, and unfortunately families who have been impacted, more in the driver's seat of understanding what changes are being proposed to airplane certification. 

It also requires the recurrent training and stronger standards for manufacturing representatives who act on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration as unit members to understand the manufacturing process. This includes strengthening the members’ understanding of what are the international aviation standards from ICAO, the Safety Management System, which is the gold standard for safety, and a key recommendation of the Expert Review Panels' report. 

Also, this legislation includes analysis of what are called Service Difficulty Reports, and regular updates to Congress. Service Difficulty Reports are information filed by pilots every day after a flight that tells somebody this happened on our carrier, this incident happened. 

And we are strengthening the requirement for the FAA to analyze that information early and frequently and give Congress updates on this. Again, something requested by the families of the MAX air crash incidents.  

FAA Aviation Safety Workforce

Additionally, we authorize $66.7 billion to boost the FAA's staff, and programs, and resources to strengthen the oversight of the manufacturing process. This is critical in providing what are called safety inspectors by the FAA. These are people we hire and train at the FAA. They go to a community college and take a safety course and they are required to understand what are the obligations of a manufacturer to implement the code that the FAA has. These individuals from the FAA, we need a more aggressive investment in them. Their training, their skilling, their ability to stay current on the latest and greatest technology.  

To better support the FAA’s oversight, the agency is required to revise and implement and update these safety inspector models so that we can increase the responsibilities. In 2021, the Department of Transportation Inspector [General] highlighted that staffing shortages by the FAA’s Flight Standard and Certification Management district offices were critical.  

Mr. President, I want to take a moment to give my condolences to the family of Ian Won. Ian Won was one of these people who helped to understand the certification process at what is called the Seattle BASOO office, that’s the office of the FAA that oversees certification. We need people to stand up like Ian Won did and said that the certification is only good when the FAA says it’s good. And that’s the kind of people we need in this system. And we recently lost Ian to cancer, but we will remember his dedication to getting aviation right. 

The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, PASS, representing the FAA’s safety employees, estimates that the FAA is currently experiencing a 20% shortage of safety inspectors. So implementing a revised model helps us better capture the inspector workload, what it takes to ensure the next generation of technology is fully understood, and to make sure that operators and manufacturers are complying with the law. 

I also want to thank Senator Schatz for his helicopter air tour safety provision. Many people know how many people travel to the state of Hawaii to travel on air tours around those beautiful islands. But that important safety responsibility has to be clear to those independent operators that they are going to meet the highest standards when moving the public around. 

Another safety provision win in the bill by Senators Baldwin, Capito, Welch, called the Global Aviation Maintenance Safety Improvement Act, will strengthen the FAA’s oversight of foreign repair stations and create a more level playing field. Unfortunately, as aircraft maintenance went overseas, and the FAA did not have enough inspectors, where did they not inspect the maintenance and repair of aircraft in those overseas repair stations. 

But now, we are taking away any incentive for someone to go do that overseas because the FAA will be there, will inspect, and make sure we are meeting the standard. So this will help us bring this back to the United States. There are nearly 1,000 FAA certified maintenance and repair stations operating outside of the United States, and we have to make sure that they are properly regulated. 

Air Traffic Controllers

We are also, in this legislation, making sure that the FAA workforce is well-trained and advised to help the FAA. It helps recruit skilled technical and expert staff to ensure that manufacturers don't take shortcuts, it helps the FAA to do more direct hiring to quickly fill these positions, and one of the most important aspects of the legislation is our most pressing workforce problem, and that is the shortage of over 3,000 air traffic controllers. 

Everyone knows that these air traffic controllers are what guide us every day to the safety of our destinations. This bill recognizes that we have shortchanged that investment, with air traffic controllers sometimes working as much as six days a week. We need a workforce that is going to continue to tackle this challenge, and this bill makes the investment so that happens. We've seen the FAA fall short of goals before in workforce training, but this staffing model and the FAA staffing committed to in this bill will help us fill that gap.  

I want to thank Senators Klobuchar, Duckworth, Warnock, Moran, Thune, Peters, and Kelly for their Workforce Development Grant Program in this legislation. It helps us grow pilots, mechanics, engineers, and technical workforce and streamline the job pathway for veterans who have real skill in the military and could more easily help us fill these aviation roles.  

Our bill requires the GAO to also study airport worker standards, a step toward getting our baggage handlers, and our ramp workers, and our aircraft cleaners the pay and benefits they deserve.  

Consumer Protections

This bill also does something for the first time for consumers. It says that you deserve a refund after a three-hour delay. Even if you have a nonrefundable ticket. You also deserve a refund for an international flight if it's been delayed for six hours. And you can get that refund immediately by talking to the carrier, or, if you decide you just don't even want to be on the delayed flight, you can get a refund.  

I want to thank Senators Markey and Vance for a mandate in the bill that says families get to sit together and you can't charge us more.  

If the airlines break these rules, guess what happens, the DOT Assistant Secretary is authorized to issue penalties up to $75,000 for fines and penalties to have a strong deterrent here.  

I also want to thank Subcommittee Chair Duckworth in her leadership in making sure airlines better accommodate passengers with disabilities. It is because of her unbelievable advocacy here that we are going to reduce the damage that is done to wheelchairs and to the passengers who have to make these flights for their own needs. And certainly, thanks Senator Duckworth, as one of our national heroes and veterans, for her unbelievable pilot expertise in helping us.  

Senators Tester, Fischer, and Sullivan are to be commended for their hard work to improve Essential Air Service programs for small and rural communities who need important economic lifelines to have aviation in their community. We authorized a record $1.7 billion for that program. And overall airport infrastructure is getting a big boost too.  

Airport and Aviation Technologies  

Thank you to Senators Peters and Baldwin and Warnock for championing making sure that airports dispose of harmful chemicals that are harmful to all of us. 

And I want to thank Senators Hickenlooper, who is the Presiding Officer today, Senators Rosen, Moran, Thune, Young, Warner, and Wicker that usher in the next generation of technologies for aviation, not just drones and air mobility aircraft, but also the research and development necessary to see the electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft industry take off. Companies like ZeroAvia in my state or Universal Hydrogen are leading the way of the next generation of strategies that will help us make these technologies a reality.  

I will say too that this legislation gives the FAA the direction to provide safe operating standards for advanced air mobility and safety for the 2028 Olympics coming soon in Los Angeles.  

And I also thank Senators Thune and Warner for their legislation creating a pathway for drones to operate beyond the visual line of sight, which we also included in this bill.  

And to make sure that Senator Rosen's hard work on the legislation for grants so states can improve the U.S. manufactured drones inspect and repair and critical infrastructure.  

FAA Reauthorization Makes Safety the Top Priority

So, my colleagues can see that this legislation is full of safety improvements. It helps address a huge part of our U.S. economy. It helps make the aviation system today work better and guarantee that we are going to continue to focus on this for the future.