WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, delivered the following prepared remarks at today’s “Aviation Safety: FAA’s Progress on Key Safety Initiatives” hearing:
Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this important hearing. Aviation safety has to be the FAA’s top priority, and it is certainly a top priority of this Committee.
Today’s hearing is a good opportunity to review the FAA’s progress on a host of aviation safety issues, including mandates from both the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, and the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
The first of these laws, enacted in response to the tragic loss of life related to Colgan flight 3407, included several safety reforms for the airline industry. The FAA has made progress in implementing some of these reforms, most notably the issuance of the Flight and Duty Time rule for airline pilots. However, several initiatives are either behind schedule or otherwise incomplete.
In particular, I hope that Administrator Huerta will be able to give the Committee an update on the Pilot Qualifications rulemaking, as well as a progress report on the agency’s effort to develop the pilot records database, as directed by the law. I also look forward to hearing from the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, which has been tracking the FAA’s efforts to meet the requirements of the Airline Safety Act.
More recently, Congress enacted the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which included additional provisions to improve safety. Among other things, the law directed the FAA to develop a strategic plan to address runway safety. The Government Accountability Office has found that the rate of runway incursions has trended steadily upwards in recent years, and the National Transportation Safety Board has again placed improving the safety of airport surface operations on its “Most Wanted List.” I look forward to hearing from all of our witnesses about ongoing efforts to increase the safety of our runways and what remains to be done.
Of course, we cannot examine aviation safety without discussing the recent incidents involving the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. While the NTSB continues searching for the root cause of the battery failures that led to a grounding of the jets, the FAA has now approved Boeing’s proposed certification plan that will hopefully address factors that likely contributed to the failures. I understand testing of the design changes has been completed and FAA is analyzing the results. I am eager to hear about the current status of the two on-going efforts, as well as an assessment of what this case says about how the two entities work together.
Finally, much has been said in recent months regarding the potential impact of the sequestration spending reductions on aviation. While this is no surprise to many at today’s hearing, I am concerned that, rather than sharpening their pencils and finding budget reductions that inflict as little pain as possible on the traveling public, the Administration has threatened to close air traffic control towers, slow down air traffic, and furlough employees. The President, the Secretary of Transportation, and the Administrator have all issued dire warnings about the possible impacts of sequester.
Now that the cuts are a reality, it is my hope that agency leaders will take a second look at plans to implement budget reductions in a way that minimizes impacts on the traveling public and the economy. Airspace users have paid billions in taxes and fees that support FAA operations, and they deserve better management of services provided.
This issue did not sneak up on anyone. During Administrator Huerta’s confirmation process, the FAA failed to provide requested information to Congress and the American public about plans to carry out sequestration. This was true even after the President signed legislation into law last August that I authored -- the Sequestration Transparency Act. And, along with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Shuster, I have sent three letters to the Department of Transportation over the past six weeks to get detailed information about their sequestration plans.
Last Thursday, Chairman Rockefeller and I sent a letter also signed by Aviation Subcommittee Chairwoman Cantwell, and Ranking Member Ayotte and our counterparts in the House, urging the FAA to target lower priority spending to avoid contract towers closures. Yet, despite my efforts and those of my colleagues to get straightforward information on the Administration’s plans for sequester, here we are with a lack of clarity and very little confidence that the proposed actions – widespread furloughs and tower closures – are the best or only way forward. A letter from Secretary LaHood in response to only one of the letters, delivered late last night, leaves much to be desired in our efforts to gain more clarity on the decisions to close contract towers, and the safety analysis conducted before Administration officials decided to propose closure of so many air traffic control facilities.
I hope Administrator Huerta will take today as an opportunity to directly answer questions on this important topic and work with Committee Members on the best way forward to implement the sequester reductions which amount to only 2.4 percent of overall federal spending for FY 2013.
Again, I thank the Chairman for calling this hearing, and I thank all of the witnesses for their part in ensuring the highest level of safety for the traveling public. I look forward to your testimony.