Congress kicks off probes into airline meltdowns

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport tower (KXAN Photo/Todd Bynum)

Congress is digging into the air travel mess following high-profile meltdowns at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Southwest Airlines. 

Lawmakers on Tuesday held their first hearing on aviation safety since last month’s FAA system outage that forced the U.S. to ground all flights for the first time in decades.

The hearing kicks off a series of investigations into recent disruptions caused by airlines and the FAA, which is seeking a five-year funding package from Congress this year. 

“Our aviation system is clearly in need of some urgent attention,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

Lawmakers are concerned that the U.S. could be on the verge of tarnishing its stellar track record of aviation safety. 

They point to an incident in Austin, Texas, over the weekend where a FedEx cargo plane nearly collided with a passenger airliner that had been approved to take off from its landing runway. The incident followed a near-crash at John F. Kennedy International Airport last month.  

“Right now the alarm bells should be going off across the aviation industry,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee. “Our systems are stretched and stressed. Demand is projected to go nowhere but up.”

Travelers walk as a video board shows flight delays and cancellations at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Travelers walk as a video board shows flight delays and cancellations at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Congress is probing the FAA’s NOTAM, short for Notice to Air Missions, a crucial pilot safety system that failed for several hours on Jan. 11 due to a mistake by a government contractor. 

The Biden administration has admitted that the decades-old technology powering NOTAM is archaic and needs to be overhauled. But the FAA says it can’t update the system until around 2030 without more funding from Congress. 

“Though the outage was initially caused by human error, the system’s lack of redundancies and outdated technology are what allowed it to happen in the first place,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member. 

Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation’s largest pilots union, told lawmakers that “there needs to be an emphasis on funding and resources” for the FAA to help the agency revamp its aging systems.

The Transportation Department requested $29.4 million for 2023 to upgrade the FAA’s flight systems, describing NOTAM as “failing vintage hardware.” 

Government and industry leaders see the FAA reauthorization bill as an opportunity to provide a huge influx of money to the agency so that it can make upgrades faster. The FAA’s annual budget hasn’t increased since 2009, even when accounting for inflation. 

“In my mind, complacency and stagnation are equal threats to a safety culture,” David Boulter, acting associate administrator for aviation safety at the FAA, told lawmakers.

A Boeing 737 Max jet prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle, Sept. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

It’s not clear that lawmakers are ready to open up the checkbook, however. Congress remains highly critical of the FAA following the Boeing 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 that left hundreds dead.

Lawmakers on Tuesday expressed concern that the FAA has only implemented around half of the 100 safety provisions Congress imposed following those incidents. 

They also appeared annoyed that the FAA’s Boulter couldn’t answer questions regarding specific safety recommendations, air traffic control disruptions and cybersecurity issues. 

“I am personally frustrated with your organization through multiple administrations, and your lack of responsiveness to me,” Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) told Boulter.

Lawmakers said Tuesday that more funding can only go so far without strong leadership — the FAA has been without a permanent chief for nearly a year and President Biden’s nominee faces a difficult road to confirmation — and policy changes.

The House last month passed the NOTAM Improvement Act, a bill from Reps. DeSaulnier and Pete Stauber (R-Minn.) that would create a task force of experts to recommend overhauls to the system. 

The bill has passed the House three times with broad bipartisan support but didn’t get a vote in the Senate. 

Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told lawmakers that in one of the recent near-crashes, the pilot alert system buried a crucial detail about a runway closure at the bottom of three pages of notes, suggesting the need for reforms.

“[Pilots] need to know what’s most appropriate, what’s most critical for their flight so they get there safely,” Homendy said. 

Congress is gearing up for a critical year for airline policy after air travelers were plagued by mass delays and cancellations last year. The industry is grappling with a surge in demand for flights, while the FAA must deal with the entrance of drones and other new flying vehicles.

Senators on Thursday will hold a hearing on how to strengthen airline operations and consumer protections as part of the FAA reauthorization bill. 

A Southwest Airlines executive is set to testify before the committee. The carrier canceled nearly 17,000 flights over the holidays, an unprecedented meltdown, after its staffing systems went haywire. 

Tags Boeing FAA Garret Graves Mark DeSaulnier Rick Larsen Sam Graves Southwest Airlines

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