The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing today to review several nominations in its purview, including FAA administrator-designate J. Randolph Babbitt and DOT deputy secretary-designate John Porcari. Opening statements are going on now. Babbitt is, as you know, the former president of the Air Line Pilots Association and a pilot at Eastern. According to Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is chairing the hearing at the moment, Babbitt is “the right person to lead the FAA at the moment.” (Wow, tough crowd.) Porcari is Maryland’s secretary of transportation.
I’m not on the Hill today, but I am watching the hearing’s live webcast. I’ll bring you aviation-related highlights of the hearing throughout the day, so refresh this post for the latest updates. Stay tuned!
11:43. Interesting item from Babbitt’s testimony: “I have worked with members of Congress on major aviation safety issues, including one of which I am most proud, ‘One Level of Safety.’ I led this project in 1993 while I was president of ALPA. This program resulted in required regional carriers to operate under the same rules and at the same level of safety as their major carrier counterparts.” Of significant relevance given the attention paid to small-lift provider safety standards in the wake of the NTSB’s Colgan Air crash hearings.
11:48. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was principally responsible for torpedoing the confirmation of Robert Sturgell, former president Bush’s FAA nominee. He’s much happier with Babbitt today, about whom, when he slips up and says “if you are confirmed, he adds “if you’re not it will be a miracle.” Lautenberg asks about the New York / New Jersey / Philadelphia airspace redesign. Would Babbitt put a hold on the redesign until frontline air traffic controllers ha had a chance to weigh in? “I’m not exactly certain where that process stands at this time,” Babbitt replies. “On a personal basis, I would really like to solicit input from all the stakeholders in that area. . . . I think it’s very important that [controllers] have input in this process.”
Lautenberg then raises a parochial concern that is more than parochial, given the airport’s role in the system: reported controller shortages at Newark Liberty International Airport. “Can you assure us that the Newark tower will be staffed to the volume of performance we require there?” Babbitt: “It’s my hope that every tower in this country will be staffed and manned to the highest degree.” He refers to the “bubble of controllers being in a similar age, a band of age” who are going to retire soon. (And already are.–ed.)
11:53. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the committee’s ranking member, asks Porcari about alliance antitrust review. “The [alliances] are very important for the competitive landscape in America.” (Especially her home-state airline American and its Oneworld immunity application.–ed.) Will he move expeditiously to makes these review decisions? “I fear another merger mania if we don’t have these kind of opportunities for competitive alliances that put off the need for mergers,” she adds. Porcari replies that he will move fast, and that in his current Maryland role as an overseer of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, “I am a party of record in favor of [the Oneworld immunity] application.”
KBH next turns to Babbitt to urge him to make the NextGen basket of air traffic control improvements his highest priority. “It is one of our highest priority,” Babbitt replies. “There is an industrywide task force that is looking at what do the users actually want,” and, he continues, there are existing technologies that will allow us to begin implemention right now. (Yes, he used the word “begin.”) Babbitt describes how some airlines are already using continuous descent approach to save fuel and reduce their local noise footprints. “We have this technology,” he says, but we need to find out where we can deploy it strategically — “where we can get the biggest advantage in reducing delays.”
12:02. “I have some concern with the slowness of the deployment of NextGen as far as the FAA is concerned,” Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) says. “The most important thing we can do is to work with ths stakeholders — meaning the airlines — to come up with a plan that works for them,” Babbitt said. It’s an expensive transition: the costs for transition can be as much as $800,000 per airplane — a very expensive undertaking. We have to convince airlines of the return on capital investment, Babbitt emphasized.
12:08. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.) speaks up for general aviation, which he describes a $150 billion industry, big in his home state, and a big export industry. But it’s in big trouble right now. (This might be part of the reason why.–ed.) He urges Babbitt to work with the general aviation industry (“I’m sure you will”). He also hopes that user fees won’t be part of the picture for general aviation when it comes to funding air traffic control: “General aviation’s going to pay its share, but it doesn’t want to be penalized or paid for on a transaction basis.” Brownback also hopes that Babbitt will continue to support the Essential Air Service, to which Porcari pipes up that it’s more of a DOT program than an FAA program. He adds, “I recognize that it is an economic lifeline to many communities.”
12:13. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is concerned about the “stunning disclosures” regarding Colgan Air Flight 3407 (see more here). Do we have “dramatically different standards in cockpits on commercial planes”? Babbitt returns to his opening statement, citing the introduction of One Level of Safety, prior to which there were literally two different standards for regionals and majors. Dorgan presses, however, a bit harshly: “Do equivalent standards now exist and are enforced?” Babbitt is not agitated as he replies, “They exist and are enforced. The reality is, when you’re hiring a pilot at a major carrier, you’re going to get someone with 5000 hours walking through the door.” Someone getting hired at a regional carrier will have far fewer hours. That’s a simple fact of life in the airline industry.
Dorgan says he will address this issue more in hearings later this summer, along with the issue of flight crew fatigue. Then he concludes. “We have not had consistent leadership [at the FAA]. . . . This is an agency that requires a lot of attention.” (I didn’t think Sturgell was the right man for the job, but it’s a little ballsy to criticize a leadership vaccum at the FAA while your party blocks a nomination in order to wait for a Democratic president.–ed.)
12:21. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) inquires about the cooling-off period between working for an airline and going to work for the FAA. “We covered it pretty well in the internal review team,” Babbitt responds. “There’s a pretty good balance.” Knowledge of an airline’s operations is a good thing, he said. The sweet spot is knowing when too much knowledge of an airline becomes a liability. “The answer,” he adds, “is the second that safety of flight becomes an issue.”
Shortly after this exchange, at 12:30, the hearing adjourns as the senators rush to the Senate floor for a vote. What a difference in tone a party switch makes!