Certification, Safety Remain Reauthorization Focus

 - August 14, 2015, 12:02 PM

As Congress prepares to begin debate in earnest about a comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill in September, attention has centered on the controversial proposal to create a new organization to run air traffic control. But the bill is expected to cover myriad other issues, many of which have long been sought by the business and general aviation community.

The House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee in July gave a sneak peak at what some of those issues might entail, releasing an outline of more than two dozen concerns the committee hopes to address in the bill.

To be called the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (AIRR), the bill is based on safety and efficiency; improved reliability for passengers; innovation; and U.S. competitiveness, the committee said. The bill, the committee promises, “will help modernize the antiquated U.S. ATC system, improve aviation equipment and aircraft certification, improve service for consumers, strengthen the FAA’s critical safety and regulation missions, provide for airport infrastructure across the county and enhance the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems.”

Certification Efforts

Two of the primary goals of the committee’s bill are to streamline certification and improve aviation safety. Simplifying the certification process has been one of the industry’s top issues, with General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) president and CEO Pete Bunce testifying on several occasions before various congressional committees on the need for change.

“If we can make certification simpler for companies, we can reduce costs,” he told AIN recently, adding that to spur more interest in the market “we have got to reduce costs.” Not only does it generate more interest in the industry, but it strengthens the industry, he said. This is especially true for start-up companies that do not have the deep pockets to fund costly projects and might struggle with an unpredictable certification process.

The industry’s message has gotten notice. One of the first T&I Committee hearings was on the cumbersome certification process and the inconsistent approach to regulation. During a speech before the Aero Club of Washington in early June, T&I Committee chairman Bill Shuster discussed only two aspects of the bill: ATC reform and certification reform, underscoring their importance to the chairman and the committee.

“The current FAA bureaucracy undermines our global competitiveness and puts American jobs in jeopardy. This aviation bill will enhance American companies’ ability to compete and get their products to market faster,” Shuster said. “Cutting the red tape in this process, and other reforms we will provide for the agency, will greatly benefit our system and our economy.”

Shuster emphasized that the bill would streamline certification processes while maintaining strong safety oversight. While the committee outline doesn’t provide many details, it does discuss greater use of delegation authority, one of the key requests of industry. It also specifies improved FAA inspector and engineering training and development. The bill will attempt to foster better agency collaboration with industry and labor stakeholders and more transparency and accountability for both the FAA and industry, the outline adds.

The bill would call for certification performance metrics and goals to measure progress in improvements and include mechanisms to tackle delays in foreign validation of U.S. products. It will also call on the FAA to promote U.S. aerospace standards internationally. Regulatory consistency further will be addressed in the bill, the outline stated, but again it does not point to specifics.

The bill will have a measure or measures designed to improve general aviation safety through streamlined approval for equipment installation on small aircraft. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has been pushing for a cheaper, quicker process to bring new safety equipment to older aircraft. Separately, the bill will include measures to promote testing and deployment of new safety technologies.

The bill’s safety measures will branch into other areas, from expediting the development of a pilot records database to improving aircraft tracking over oceans, strengthening voluntary safety reporting programs and improving safety workforce training. Another safety measure will direct the FAA to develop a comprehensive plan to address cyber-security vulnerabilities. The FAA came under criticism earlier this year from the Government Accountability Office, which reported that “significant security control weaknesses” identified within the FAA’s hardware, software and communications equipment threaten its mission of safely and efficiently managing the airspace system.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) integration will receive attention in the reauthorization bill. Measures will be included to encourage wider use of UAS test ranges, to streamline approvals for commercial use of small UAS and to call for a study of privacy implications. Another measure will encourage development of sense-and-avoid technology.

Several measures are directed at consumers, including a ban on cellphone calls in flight aboard airliners, baggage-fee refund protections, extension of the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection and a requirement for airlines to notify passengers of their rights. 

Airport-grant funding would be maintained at current levels. The bill will lift restrictions on the passenger facility charge so airports of all sizes can more readily finance projects.

Industry Wish List

A number of other measures are anticipated, or at least on the industry wish list, but not included in the outline. The outline does not specifically address third-class medical or other Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 pilot protections. Senate backers of PBOR 2 had hoped to include this in highway reauthorization in July, but were unsuccessful. FAA reauthorization would be the logical place for the measure. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta indicated that Congress might need to play a role to help move the third-class medical exemption. “We’ve been working closely with Congress on this issue and the activities that are going on there,” Huerta told attendees at the recent EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh and urged them to contact their local lawmakers.

Another measure on industry wish lists is help with ensuring that management fees are not treated as commercial services subject to the airline ticket tax. Industry groups have been awaiting IRS guidance on this issue, but agency turnover and the approaching sunset of the current Administration appear to be slowing the IRS effort, even if it is on the priority list. Industry groups are now turning to FAA reauthorization legislation to resolve the issue.

FAA funding levels also play a key role in FAA reauthorization. The outline does not specify long-term plans for funding, except that airport levels would remain unchanged. But with the promise of a new ATC organization, it is unclear how much of the FAA’s operations account would be eliminated, as well as its facilities and equipment funding. It is also unclear whether aviation taxes would remain the same or change in light of the potential of new user fees.

The outline does provide a few details about the ATC plans, specifying that a new organization would be an independent, not-for-profit corporation that is self-sustaining through user fees and outside the federal budget process. The committee would transfer the current ATC employees to the new corporation under their current compensation and benefits plans. It does not describe how the corporation would be governed, how the FAA would maintain its purview of ATC activities, or how the user fees would be implemented.

The T&I Committee is expected to debate the bill in September. The Senate has not discussed measures in its own bill or whether it will simply take up the House bill. But with controversial issues such as the independent ATC organization, consensus on the bill will likely be elusive.