Airlines back more spending, personnel to repair failed FAA system


DALLAS (TBEN) — Airline executives rioted last year when government officials, led by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, blamed the airlines for causing thousands of flight cancellations and mistreating their customers.

The shoe is now on the other side after a technology glitch at the Federal Aviation Administration grounded planes for a while earlier this week, but airline leaders are taking a different approach.

They have avoided harsh words and settling accounts. Instead, they are calling on Congress and the Biden administration to give the FAA more staff and more money to upgrade its systems.

“I know the FAA is doing the best they can with what they have, but we have to stand with the FAA,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said Friday.

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom praised the FAA for “calling a timeout” on Wednesday morning — which temporarily prevented planes from taking off across the country — as it fixed a system that provides safety and other information to pilots and air traffic controllers . He said it showed that safety comes first.

“Investments are required,” Isom told TBEN. “It involves billions of dollars, and it is not something that is done overnight.”

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Of course, airline executives have an interest in ensuring that the FAA can function. The agency manages the country’s airspace and hires air traffic controllers who must juggle a mix of passenger and cargo planes, smaller private jets, helicopters and drones.

Bastian said the FAA’s lack of adequate personnel is leading to longer flight times and making it more difficult to operate in busy parts of the Northeast and Florida.

“There is no doubt that the investment in a modernized air traffic control system will yield tremendous amounts of efficiencies and growth, which will mean better service for the American public,” he told reporters.

Airlines executives undoubtedly want to remain in the good graces of the bureaucrats who regulate them. Isom went out of his way to praise the leadership skills of Buttigieg, who heads the FAA’s parent organization.

Airlines have been urging the FAA for years to modernize the air traffic control system. They argue that a faster and full rollout of a so-called NextGen plan to modernize the national airspace system will benefit the traveling public by making flights more efficient and reliable.

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The FAA’s technology is sure to be a key issue this year as Congress considers legislation that would govern the agency for the next five years. But Capitol Hill’s initial response was to demand answers from Buttigieg about this week’s debacle.

Late Friday, more than 120 members of Congress said in a letter to Buttigieg that “the FAA was well aware of the issues facing the NOTAM system,” which failed this week. NOTAM stands for Notice to Air Missions.

In the letter, signed by 71 Republicans and 51 Democrats, they said Congress directed the FAA to modernize the NOTAM system in 2018, and that the FAA was asking for money to replace “vintage hardware” that supports it.

“Combined with this week’s failure, important questions have been raised about how long these problems have existed and what is needed to prevent such problems from happening again,” lawmakers said. “Again, this is completely unacceptable.”

Buttigieg’s office declined to comment on the letter, but said in a statement that the NOTAM system had been functioning properly since Wednesday with no unusual flight delays or cancellations.

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Among those who signed the letter were Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the new chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the committee.

Earlier this week, Graves suggested that the failure of the FAA warning system was related to “the number of empty desks and vacant offices at the FAA,” including the lack of a permanent administrator since the last one shut down in March 2021.

Graves has not commented on FAA funding levels.

Larsen said in an interview earlier this week that he is optimistic that Democrats and Republicans can put aside partisan differences and help the FAA improve its technology.

“This was a major disruption to the traveling public, and they didn’t deserve it,” he said.

On the Senate side of the Capitol, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, said the commerce committee she leads will investigate the outage. She has also pledged to investigate airline outages like the one that hit Southwest last month.