Aviation Safety Must Be Top Priority

Posted June 12, 2008 at 1:48pm

These are tumultuous times for the airline industry. The unprecedented and rapid increase in the cost of oil and fuel is threatening the health of airlines. The subsequent increase in ticket prices and fees will discourage passengers from flying. Consumer complaints, delays and safety concerns have been prominently featured in the media, and the summer travel season is just getting under way. A recent estimate predicted financial losses for airlines this year could surpass $6 billion. One major airline merger is under review, and if approved, could lead to others and an industry with a markedly different landscape.

Last month, a brief glimmer of good news surfaced as the Senate began consideration of legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. While this important legislation will not bring down the price of oil, it is critical to restoring a fully functional FAA, with funding and personnel levels that will enable it to meet the growing demands of our aviation system.

Last September, the House passed H.R. 2881, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007, legislation to accomplish these goals. Since then, we have waited for the Senate to act, and unfortunately, we continue to wait, as consideration last month stalled and the bill was quickly pulled from the floor. We should not delay any longer, as passage of a strong reauthorization bill would be a sorely needed positive moment for the government and the airline industry — a chance to pull together and move forward, put in place the framework for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), maintain the safety of our aviation system, reduce congestion and delays, and be more responsive to consumers.

Safety must be our foremost priority. We have the safest aviation system in the world, but we must remain vigilant. Hearings held earlier this year by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee showed the dangers of not maintaining aggressive oversight of the safety relationship between the FAA and the airlines.

As important as technology is, the human factor is still the most important element of safety. The Subcommittee on Aviation has examined staffing levels to make sure that the personnel are in place to fulfill the FAA’s safety functions. There is no doubt that a shortage of air traffic controllers is becoming a serious problem, particularly at our major airports. The imposition of work rules by the FAA when contract negotiations broke down in 2006 destroyed morale and has led to an accelerated level of retirements among the most experienced controllers. Hiring has not kept pace, and some facilities are relying on overtime to meet staffing needs.

H.R. 2881 requires binding arbitration for future labor negotiations between the air traffic controllers and the FAA, and it would send both sides back to the bargaining table to reach agreement on a new contract. The bill also addresses the need for more maintenance inspectors — particularly for overseas repair stations — requires a study on pilot fatigue and directs the FAA to apply occupational health standards to aircraft. All of these measures will improve safety and the working relationship between the FAA and its employees, which will positively affect worker morale.

At the same time, H.R. 2881 makes historic investments in infrastructure and authorizing $15.8 billion for the Airport Improvement Program and $13 billion for facilities and equipment at the FAA to expedite NextGen. The bill also gives airports the option of raising the Passenger Facility Charge to $7, further helping them to meet their capital needs.

The current and expected increase in passenger traffic means our airports need to expand to meet this demand. This funding will help build runways and improve terminals, while NextGen will take us from a radar-based system to a satellite-based system. This transformation will take decades to fully implement, but improved technology will allow us to make more efficient use of our airspace as planes are able to fly closer together and pilots and controllers have access to real-time information, reducing congestion and delays.

These advances, in turn, should help make the flying experience better. The past two years have seen several well-publicized instances of long tarmac delays, increases in delayed and canceled flights and reduced staffing levels that leave airlines less equipped to deal with upset passengers. In response, our legislation takes specific action on aviation consumer issues to make the airline industry more accountable to its customers.

H.R. 2881 addresses the problem of lengthy tarmac delays by requiring airlines and airports to file emergency contingency plans with the FAA detailing how they will make potable water, food, bathroom facilities, good ventilation, medical treatment and options for deplanement available when flights are delayed and stuck on the tarmac. These plans will be publicly available and fines will be levied if the plans are not filed and implemented. In addition, the Department of Transportation must post public reports on canceled and diverted flights and establish a 1-800 number for passenger complaints.

In summary, this is a very volatile time for the airline industry, and our aviation system has pressing needs that demand our immediate attention. By enacting a strong FAA reauthorization bill, we can improve safety and worker morale, invest in our transportation infrastructure and make air travel better for consumers. The longer we wait, the worse these problems become and the more expensive they are to fix. Now is the time for action.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.