Almost a year after he was sworn in for a five-year term as FAA Administrator, Steve Dickson participated in a virtual town hall with NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen yesterday. Dickson reflected on the extraordinary events confronting the agency in his first year, stressed the need for collaboration, and agreed that rulemakings such as the recent pilot records database (PRD) proposal should not cause unintended consequences. While he could not promise that he would address every concern that Bolen outlined in the town hall, Dickson encouraged continued communication and said the industry’s thoughts would be taken into consideration.
Noting that he has worked with NBAA and Bolen on a variety of issues, Dickson said, “That’s a relationship that I certainly value. And I think that it reinforces the importance of collaborating…I am always learning. I recognize that [there were] a lot of things that I knew about aviation when I came on board at the agency, but there's a lot that I don't know. And, so I'm learning from you and...folks at the agency and other stakeholders all the time.”
He stressed this input when Bolen asked about the FAA’s approach to the electronic PRD notice of proposed rulemaking that has drawn an outpouring of opposition for directives that expand the scope to include corporate flight departments. The FAA expressed a view that corporate flight departments could be gateway paths for pilots into commercial airlines and therefore should be among those required to submit information into the electronic PRD.
But Dickson, demonstrating that he has heard the concerns, told Bolen that “this may be an overbroad solution” and “I’m hopeful that as [we] work through all the comments that we'll end up with something that everyone could embrace.”
He added that there needs to be a recognition of the burdens being placed on a community “that may not necessarily be the feeder system…and we’re looking at an enormous cost for what in the end, [in] the vast majority of cases, never leads to an airline hiring process.”
Bolen further asked about the kinds of information that the proposal would require operators to furnish to the electronic database. Particularly concerning was a stipulation that comments from check pilots be included. Dickson responded that “we are going to have to strike a balance” with having the necessary information. The FAA doesn’t want to foster “anything that chills—that has unintended consequences of chilling—safety dialogue or people raising issues.”
Another issue raised by Bolen was the possible expansion of the Privacy ICAO Address (PIA) program, which was created to help protect the security of operators from information available through ADS-B. Bolen praised the FAA and the community for working together to achieve the smooth rollout of the ADS-B mandate that took effect on January 1, as well as the efforts of the agency to create the PIA.
“There is some room to continue to grow on that program in that the privacy is extended for the continental United States,” he said pointing to flights that depart from or enter the U.S. through international airspace. “That's an area where we think we can build on the success to date.”
Dickson agreed that the FAA should have the ability “to continue to develop that.”
The administrator also noted the vast leaps in technology and potential new entrants into the airspace. “It really is an exciting time, and we've got to keep our strategic focus,” Dickson said. “It’s really important that we come together and talk about these issues.”
He noted that this expansion is in multiple fronts, citing as an example commercial space launches. He estimated that there will be 35 or so FAA-licensed launches this year, but the number may jump to about one a week next year. “Even as NASA buys seats, essentially, from commercial operators those are going to be FAA-licensed launches.”
But as new vehicles, such as urban air mobility aircraft, enter the airspace, Dickson said, “we need to think about how it fits into the rest of our transportation system.” And, while safety is an important piece of that, other issues such as privacy and community concerns will need to be addressed.
“Definitely, the technology is going to be there," he added. "What I want to do is make sure that we are taking a methodical approach so that we can be able to identify all of the issues and work them across the government,” to ensure that everybody is on the same page.
Dickson also noted the progress the FAA was able to make on the supersonic rulemaking despite the challenges that came with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic, he said, has created a “huge disruption” for the country, the aviation industry, and globally. He noted the transitions the FAA made from January and February mostly managing international traffic and then transitioning to dealing with the myriad travel restrictions. This involved working with interagency partners to limit flight diversions, ensuring crews weren’t having to enter quarantines, and enabling cargo operations.
But then in March, “things started to change.” He said March 17 was a day “I will never forget.” The FAA had its first Covid report at a tower, in Chicago. “We had to shut the tower operation down” and coordinate with operators. Noting the busy market in Chicago, he said it took several days to get operations reconstituted and ensure the facility was safe for employees to return. This was the beginning of several such closures.
“As it turns out, I found out rapidly that we have 314 air traffic facilities. And we had about that many cleaning contracts with local cleaning vendors,” he noted, adding that the FAA realized that that situation wasn’t sustainable and needed to be addressed.
In the midst of all that was the earthquake in Salt Lake City. “The agency already has, as you would expect, a very robust contingency and operational continuity plans in place," he said. "But having your workforce and a physical air traffic facility affected at the same time is something that no one had ever dealt with before."
Working with regional flight surgeons and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which he said, “really stepped up to the plate,” the FAA was able to develop team scheduling to preserve operations and has had “very little disruption.”
At the same time, the FAA has had to focus on industry requirements with numerous extensions and exemptions to various deadlines. The chief counsel’s office, he said, is one part of the agency that has almost turned into a 24/7 operation. “We’ve had a number of important rulemakings,” he said, but he added that the agency will continue to review the circumstances and evaluate steps that will need to be taken.
Reflecting on his first year, Dickson said: “There's a lot of cool stuff going on. And it's a really exciting time. We are dealing with a challenge that none of us thought we would have, coming into the year. But these challenges create a lot of opportunities as well.”