RAA Head Black Breaks Ice during FAA Safety Summit Session

 - March 15, 2023, 2:09 PM

Of the seven aviation industry leaders assembled during a panel session at Wednesday’s FAA Safety Summit, only Regional Airline Association president Faye Malarkey Black ventured to break the pregnant pause after former NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt asked for opinions regarding the reasons for the recent spate of runway incursions in the U.S. Black pointed to an increased pace of change in the industry as one factor, noting the importance of vigilance and the consistent application of tools such as safety management systems.

“I think what we're seeing now, what we're all aware of, and part of the reason we're here is…the environment is changing,” she said. “And it's a good time to talk about the tools of safety and how we can make sure that we stay ahead of those changes. We don't just keep up, we stay two steps ahead and we see that that pace of change is accelerating…Partnership is going to be really, really important as we look at new entrants coming in and new technology. As that shifts, so does the risk associated with it. We ought to be not just talking about the incidents right now, but the incidents that we might be seeing tomorrow with new entrants coming in.”  

After asking for any further comment from the panel and getting none, Sumwalt turned his attention to the question of the resilience of the U.S. national airspace system. National Air Traffic Control Association (NATCA) president Rich Santa expressed concern about air traffic controller staffing deficiencies, notwithstanding plans to hire 1,500 controllers this year and 1,800 next year.

“We [have] 1,200 certified air traffic controllers less now than we had 10 years ago,” noted Santa. “When you have less eyes, when you have less positions open, that demands a reduction of efficiency to address the safety risks that are introduced. It’s time for us to accurately and adequately staff the facilities so we can have that resiliency.”

Black added that as the flow of new hires accelerates, the quality of training must meet standards that ensure highly qualified and safety-conscious employees. “We've got to look at the training that happens and the foundation, making sure that we have the right supplemental training, making sure that we have the right bridge programs, and making sure that we're not relying solely on flight hours as a proxy for experience. Because that's not serving us well today. The reality of that is when the pilots come into our training sessions, they have high flight time. They're not quite as well prepared for the Part 121 environment.”

From an airport perspective, American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) CEO Todd Hauptli explained that his members had to keep in place 90 percent of their workforces as a condition of receiving government Covid funding, leaving an ample level of full-time staffing. However, he noted “an awful lot of churn” among tenants, contractors, and partners, and reiterated the importance of high-quality training to maintaining safety standards. “Doing training and getting everybody up to speed ends up being super important in our view,” he said. “That's a lot of what AAAE does.”

Air Line Pilots Association president Jason Ambrosi concurred, adding that the influx of new pilots, rapid upgrades, and the fact that many haven’t worked together before also add stress to the system. “I'm very refreshed to hear all the emphasis on training because I couldn't agree more,” he said. “And the last thing we should be talking about is reducing any regulations or experience requirements.”

Meanwhile, Airlines for America CEO Nick Calio opined that the stress on the overall system hasn’t reached a crisis level given that carriers still operate 10 percent fewer flights now than they did before the pandemic. “And that's because we've had to adjust our schedules to meet the demand and make sure that we're not putting too much demand on the system,” he explained. “I think that's important.”

A more immediate need, said Calio, involves the FAA itself and the need for increased funding from the U.S. government.

“Seventeen organizations, including A4A and everybody on this stage, sent a letter to Congress last week saying that we needed to adequately fund the FAA,” he noted. “There needs to be funding for staffing, there needs to be funding for technology. And right now we're not meeting that demand.”