Although originally billed as a Senate hearing on FAA Reauthorization, because another continuing resolution was passed last week, the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security switched the focus of the hearing from Reauthorization to NextGen and "the Benefits of Modernization."
Essentially, this hearing was a scaled-down version of the hearing that the House held last week. (See, "U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation Holds Hearing on FAA’s NextGen and ATC Modernization Efforts," posted March 22, 2009). Indeed, the written testimony of Dr. Dillingham is almost word for word identical to the written testimony presented to the House Subcommittee. Likewise, the written testimony of Dale Wright, NATCA’s Director of Safety and Technology, was in most respects the same as Patrick Forrey’s last week. As Sen. John D. Rockefeller, IV, Chairman of the full Committee stated in his opening statement, this hearing was a first step to "move the U.S. past Mongolia in the ranking of air traffic control systems."
It was also Sen. Rockefeller who summed up the problems the FAA has been having not only with respect to NextGen, but many other issues as well: "[r]ivalries in the aviation community have hampered the industry’s ability to speak with one voice for far too long. Without that one voice, you will fail." The simmering labor disputes between the Air Traffic Controllers and the FAA; the mistrust between the Pilots and General Aviation; the airlines’ position with the FAA have all made it difficult for anything to be resolved, even if everyone agrees that some form of NextGen is an absolute necessity.
Thus, the hearing had Hank Krakowski, Chief Operating Officer of the Air Traffic Organization at the FAA, patting FAA on the back for getting ATC Modernization off of GAO’s "High Risk List," (see, "GAO Removes FAA Air Traffic Control Modernization Program From Its High Risk List," posted January 22, 2009) and generally touting how invested the FAA is in working with all stakeholders to achieve the goals. In counterpoint, NATCA’s Wright, talked about the human cost of NextGen, and telling the Subcommittee that the "FAA must collaborate meaningfully with stakeholders" pointing out that "to date [NATCA has] received no indication from the FAA that the Agency has any intention of meaningfully collaborating with NATCA."
Likewise, T.K. Kallenbach of Honeywell Aerospace lauded the environmental benefits of Continuous Descent, which is possible with the new NextGen technology. Meanwhile United Airlines’ Joe Kolshak understandably lobbied hard for NextGen, since the airlines anticipate a huge drop in fuel costs, although the airlines might be looking for some assistance to get the required technology installed into the cockpits. And finally, Dr. Dillingham once again told a Congressional panel that the "FAA faces challenges in resolving human capital," research and development, and facilities issues.
So, where does that leave us? Two "foundational" and "critical" hearings in which the same people are saying essentially the same thing that they (or their agencies/organizations) have been saying for at least the past two years. With FAA Reauthorization stalled in the House (see "User Fees Issues Probably Will Force Short-Term Extension of FAA’s Authorization Instead of Full Reauthorization," posted March 16, 2009), and the Obama administrative set to present its proposal in Mid-April, it seems unlikely that anything will get rolling anytime soon.
A list of the witnesses and their written testimonies follows.