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Wed, Apr 17, 2013

Huerta Gives No Dreamliner Timeline To Senate Transportation Committee

Committee Questions Tower Closures, Other Budget Cuts

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing Tuesday titled “Aviation Safety: FAA’s Progress on Key Safety Initiatives”. The hearing was called to examine the consequences of sequestration on the FAA, the agency’s efforts to implement safety provisions in recent FAA reauthorizations, and the status of the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation of the Boeing 787.

The panel focused on issues relating to how the sequester will affect air traffic control operations, as well as progress being made to get Boeing's Dreamliner flying again.

"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," said committee chair John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-WV) in his opening remarks. "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.

"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," Rockefeller (pictured) continued. "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."

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that a decision on the Dreamliner will come "very soon," according to a report appearing in Bloomberg News. During his testimony, the administrator said that the agency's employees will bear the brunt of the budget cuts mandated by the sequester. With 70 percent of the agency's budget dedicated to salaries, “they will bear a significant portion of the cuts,” he said. The FAA has to find some $637 million to cut its $16 billion budget by Sept. 30.

On the issue of the Dreamliner, Huerta said that while Boeing has completed flight test on the new battery system, he is not ready to say when the 787 will again be in revenue service. “The FAA is reviewing the test reports and analysis and will approve the redesign once we are satisfied Boeing has shown the redesigned battery system meets FAA requirements,” Huerta said in his testimony.

Huerta insisted that the closure of the contract towers would not affect safety. But with 47,000 employees being required to take at least one unpaid day off every two weeks from April 21 through Sept. 30, and prolonged equipment outages resulting from lower parts inventories and fewer technicians, "travelers should expect significant delays,” he said.

Huerta said that there would also be ripples felt by those who use other FAA services, such as aircraft manufacturers and repair facilities. Pilots could see delays in license processing and other approvals.

In a separate hearing on the House side of the Capitol, Bloomberg reports that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood that the FAA could not afford to push the closure of contract towers any further into the future. “We don’t have the money to keep the towers open,” LaHood said. “We simply don’t.”

FMI: www.commerce.senate.gov, www.faa.gov

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