Rockefeller Shares Concerns on Control Tower Closures with FAA Administrator

April 16, 2013

JDR Head ShotWASHINGTON, D.C.--Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV today gave an opening statement at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing titled "Aviation Safety: FAA's Progress on Key Safety Initiatives." Below are his prepared remarks:

Americans take the safety of their aviation system for granted.  And, they should – given that all too often air travel is a difficult experience, safety is the last thing passengers need to worry about.  There are certain expectations built into modern air travel.  Airline passengers expect that their pilot is experienced and rested; that their aircraft has been properly maintained; and that air traffic controllers will guide their plane safely through the skies.  But, the industry and regulators should never take the safety of the system for granted.  I know that none of us in this room do; everyone here today is deeply committed to aviation safety.  

Our strong aviation record did not happen overnight.  Everyone involved has worked hard to cultivate a strong safety culture. The FAA, aircraft manufacturers, and airline employees all hold safety as their number one priority, as I do.  Congress has spent a considerable amount of time in the last few years strengthening the FAA. It wasn’t easy, but we got it done. And, the aviation system will become even safer because of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act we passed last year and the Airline Safety Act we passed in 2010.

As you are well-aware, our goal was to make certain our aviation system continues to be the safest, most efficient, and modern in the world.  The FAA has made considerable progress implementing many of the safety initiatives in those bills, and the agency is to be commended for their effort.  But, now all of the progress the FAA has made is at risk.  Sequestration is affecting every aspect of the FAA’s operations.  

A great deal of attention has been placed on the potential closure of 149 air traffic control towers, including four in West Virginia.  I have expressed my concerns about the impact of closing these towers on the airports and the communities that depend on them.  I know my colleagues share these concerns and we will likely discuss this issue in detail here today.  I also share my colleagues’ frustration with the lack of transparency on how the agency made this decision and how it intends to implement the budget cuts.  We need to have a better understanding of the specifics.  What I do know is that if we fail to reverse the decrease in the FAA’s budget we will not have the aviation system that we need to compete in the global economy.  

The hard choices that the FAA has to make to implement the sequester will only be magnified this October when the next fiscal year begins.  I know that the agency will never sacrifice safety, but it be forced to limit every aspect of the system’s operations.  The implementation of Next Gen will be delayed, our aerospace industry will suffer as certification of new technology and equipment is slowed, more towers could be forced to close, and critical safety rulemakings such as pilot training and qualification standards will take longer.  One of the reasons I have so aggressively advocated for moving to a digital satellite-based system with the NextGen program is that it will make the system safer.  

I know that the FAA will never compromise safety. But, the erosion of FAA’s budget directly impacts our ability to complete NextGen and other safety initiatives.  It threatens our ability to make the continuous improvement to aviation safety we have made since the Wright Brothers.  Unlike other transportation systems, we have a comprehensive plan to move our aviation system into the 21st Century – but our unwillingness to raise sufficient revenues to pay for it means that we will fall further and further behind.  

We face difficult budgetary decisions.  We need to make the necessary investments in our transportation networks.  The United States has been the world’s aviation leader for over 100 years – we risk that global leadership position if we are unwilling to continue to invest in it.  The situation with the lithium battery on the Boeing 787 is a perfect example of where the regulators identified and acted swiftly to address a serious safety problem. The company and FAA are evaluating solutions that I hope will soon be proven workable.  

It is also a perfect example of why the FAA and the industry cannot take safety for granted.  With the ever-increasing complexity of aircraft and the air traffic control system, we need to make sure that our safety systems are advancing with the same speed of our technological innovation.  

Although the situation with the Boeing 787 has dominated the news, the FAA is currently working with the aviation community to actively identify and address potential risks before they result in an accident. The agency is working with controllers and pilots to increase the reporting of errors, so we can learn from our mistakes.  We are putting the future safety of the system at risk if we are unwilling to sustain our commitment to these critical efforts.

Everyone agrees that these are vital programs that will directly improve the safety of the system.  Do we really want to slow down these initiatives?  I am not willing to settle for the status quo on aviation safety.  I will seek to maintain the necessary level of funding for the FAA and its critical missions as we continue our efforts to address our broader fiscal issues.  

I appreciate our budgetary situation is forcing every the federal government to make difficult choices, but those choices still must be smart, driven by good policy, and not damage our long-term economic competitiveness.  It’s a continued commitment to safety that makes the U.S. aviation system the safest in the world. We’ve seen that in recent months – safety has to come above all else. And I am confident that this will continue.