No matter what objection or challenge the United States taxpayers bring in response to Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) initiatives, FAA’s defense is always the same: changes are required for “safety and efficiency.” While that may be true in some instances, FAA’s global resort to such an excuse (e.g., justification for changes to flight paths over populated areas without notice or environmental review) is belied by the recent responses of both the United States Congress, and the agency’s ultimate leadership, the Secretary of Transportation.
First, the General Accounting Office (“GAO”) criticizes FAA for failing “to develop a comprehensive strategy” to guide the integration of drones into the national airspace system. GAO-23-105189, January 26, 2023. Specifically, the GAO claims that FAA’s plans so far lack the “important elements – such as goals, objectives, and milestones – that would help FAA manage more effectively.” It would appear difficult, if not impossible, to promote and support “safety and efficiency” in a changing system utterly lacking in the critical elements of the system itself.
Second, and certainly not less important, also on January 26, 2023, the United States Congress passed the NOTAM Improvement Act of 2023 in response to the unprecedented breakdown of the air traffic system caused by the failure of the Notice to Air Missions (“NOTAM”) component of that system, allegedly resulting from an accidental deletion of a file. The new Act calls for a task force to be appointed by the FAA Administrator to review and reform the system. Although there is the taint of “fox guarding the hen house” in this structure, the task force will also be made of up pilots, airline executives, union officials, air traffic controllers and computer system experts (notably lacking members of the public) to give a broader based view of necessary information to be included in the NOTAM system, as well as the most effective method of transmitting that information to pilots. The question remains, of course, why the FAA’s current structure was unable to effectuate those changes, and thus maintain the “safety and efficiency” and even the operational capacity, of the system.
Finally, even the Secretary of Transportation weighed in, although somewhat belatedly, to urge the FAA to “pick up the pace” when it comes to modernizing its computer systems. He joins Representative Sam Graves, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in a push to repair “the huge vulnerability in our air transportation system,” part of which is seen by Representative Graves as going beyond computer systems to an absence of “skilled, dedicated, and permanent leadership in positions across the agency starting with the Administrator’s office.”
In summary, FAA needs to spend less time on changes in the airspace over uninformed citizens, and more time cleaning its own house to meet its oft-referenced responsibility to provide a “safe and efficient” air transportation system. Stay tuned for FAA’s response to these multiple initiatives.