During the past week, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has taken two actions likely to elicit “equal and opposite reactions” from the aviation community specifically, and the American public in general. On the positive end of the spectrum lies FAA’s approval of a presumed cure for the dramatic malfunctions of the lithium ion batteries installed by the Boeing Company in place of the hydraulic system in the company’s 787 Dreamliner passenger jet. This “fix” will allow Boeing to begin deliveries of the aircraft again after an FAA mandated hiatus since January 16, 2013. At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum lies FAA’s decision to begin the furloughing of air traffic controllers, a move that has already precipitated the filing of petitions with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by, among others, the aviation trade group for the nation’s airlines, Airlines for America, the Airline Pilots Association, and the Regional Airline Association.
On the one hand, FAA’s relatively swift treatment of Boeing’s lithium ion battery dilemma brought praise from aviation interests. First, the agency worked with Boeing on its proposed plan, made public on March 14, whereby the company would reduce risk of fire by insulating and spacing out parts in each battery unit, reducing charge levels so the battery cannot overcharge or overheat, and reducing exposure to oxygen by enclosing the batteries in stainless steel cases. In addition, FAA will require airlines flying 787s to install the modified components; will assign teams of inspectors to modification sites; and has committed that it would not allow any modified aircraft to fly before being FAA approved. The agency’s cooperation with Boeing in effectuating the fix will allow Boeing to begin delivery of its 890 orders for the 787 worldwide, thus enhancing Boeing’s and the American aircraft industry’s revenue prospects for the coming year with each $206-$243 million jet delivered.
Quite different, however, was the aviation community’s reception for FAA’s decision to reduce its budget by furloughing air traffic controllers one to two days per two week pay period. The predictions are dire, ranging from the entire national air transportation system coming to a halt, as predicted by the Airline Pilots Association, to delays “rippling across the air traffic system” with consequent damage to the resurging U.S. economy, as seen by Airlines for America.
Apparently the problem has already begun. As early as the night of April 21, a mere two days after the FAA’s decision, delays were endemic across the air transportation system. For instance, at Los Angeles International Airport, numerous flights were cancelled leaving passengers stranded in the terminal, sometimes overnight. The slowdown, however, was not unanticipated. In terms reminiscent of the long gone, but not forgotten, Reagan era conflict between the Administration and air traffic controllers, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents about 14,700 of the nation’s controllers, made a thinly veiled reference to a potential slowdown in air traffic: “If we can’t safely operate a flight, it won’t go.”
The decision to furlough the controllers apparently replaces FAA’s original decision to close 149 air traffic control towers at small general aviation airports throughout the United States, a move generally disfavored not only by controllers, but also by the airports that stood to lose the service. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has been asked to enjoin FAA’ s decision until the case can be presented to the court in its entirety.
In summary, these two FAA decisions, on vastly different topics, with vastly different areas of impact, illustrate how important, and pervasive, FAA decision making and regulatory control extends into the lives of the American public.