December 9, 2014

“Transformational Change” in the FAA

The threat of sequestration loomed large over the opening panel of ALPA’s symposium, “Positioning the U.S. Airline Industry for Success,” which discussed the forthcoming Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization legislation and the priorities of the different aviation constituents. All panelists agreed that the previous route to authorization—with 23 different extensions—is not acceptable, often using the phrase “stable and predictable funding” as the solution. Many pointed out that even the brief shutdown in funding with the last sequestration caused a ripple effect that set the agency back six to eight months, and that the FAA really needed a “transformational change.”

Moderated by ALPA’s Michael Robbins, managing director of government and public affairs, panelists included: Edward M. Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association; Rich Swayze, assistant administrator for policy, international affairs, and environment with FAA; David Grizzle, CEO of Dazzle Partners LLC; Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association; Todd Hauptli, president and CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives; and Sean D. Kennedy, senior vice president, global government affairs, with Airlines for America.

FAA’s Swayze suggested that the first step toward an authorization bill is determining what is needed most and proceeding from there. He cautioned, however, that while he expects a basic authorization bill could pass Congress on time, there would be “a lot of challenges” in passing a bill that would provide the change many on the panel find necessary—at least without another extension. Panelists agreed that while some level of dramatic change is needed to ensure long-term funding for the FAA, there remain differences on what that change should look like.

While there were a variety of priorities discussed for the authorization, A4A’s Kennedy had perhaps the strongest statement on the direction of the FAA, saying that change “has to be transformational.” He continued that “we’re encouraging the Hill to go long, go big.” Most on the panel agreed that the status quo cannot be maintained if the United States is to keep its place at the top of the industry. The panel briefly discussed other systems, such as Nav Canada, but cautioned that it’s unlikely any outside system could simply be transplanted into U.S. airspace. Instead, the industry needs to develop its priorities together, with all parties represented, and create our own unique American-model for our air traffic system.

Hauptli suggested that progress boiled down to, “Can we in the industry lock arms around a proposal and get enough votes, provide enough reason for our friends on Capitol Hill to take their courage pills to vote for something other than something that just keeps the lights on?” But he said time is short to get something done, with sequestration and the upcoming 2016 presidential election both looming large. “Having a clear idea of where we want to go and how to get there” is a necessity, Bolen added, saying the aviation community “is more cohesive now that we have been at any point in history.” This was echoed by Grizzle, who pointed out how most recognize that “non-transformational change” in the past has not worked. Robbins encouraged the panel and those watching “to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and to consider progressive steps towards “transformational change” as opposed to making no progress while waiting for all stakeholders to agree.

The current airspace system in the United States, all agreed, is tops in the industry. “From wheels up to wheels down,” said Bolen, “our members love flying in the United States most and say it’s the best in the world.” Without the type of transformational change the panel discussed this morning, however, Rinaldi predicts, “We are going to fall behind the rest of the world” in terms of modernization. The clock is ticking on the effort, and all recognize the hard work still to come.

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