More Flight Delays, Cancellations Possible as FAA Strains to Meet Demand: Agency Head

Janice Hisle
By Janice Hisle
April 27, 2023Congress

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is straining to meet increased demand for air travel while its air-traffic control towers are already understaffed.

And without rapid funding for more personnel and other improvements, the flying public will likely face more flight delays and cancellations, Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen warned lawmakers during an April 26 hearing in Washington.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), ranking member of the subcommittee whose oversight includes the FAA, says constituents, increasingly concerned about the reliability of flights, have made comments such as: “I don’t feel like I’m buying a ticket. I feel like I’m buying a chance.”

Quigley said, “It shouldn’t be that way.”

He’s especially concerned that cancellations and delays have already been rising, and now air travel is projected to increase by 10 percent.

“Aviation safety, workforce readiness, and airport infrastructure must be state-of-the-art” to meet that demand, Quigley said during the hearing. He’s a member of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, under the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations.

Congressional Delay Likely

But Nolen cautioned that won’t happen if Congress delays enacting the FAA’s spending authorization. Holding up a chart, he said, “At the FAA, we manage thousands of systems.”

A funding delay would require “immediate cuts in all of these critical systems,” Nolen said, including shutting down about 275 air-traffic control towers, leaving two-thirds of the National Air System without those services.

The FAA also would need to impose a hiring freeze, employee furloughs, and halt computer modernization. An outdated FAA computer system came to light when it failed on Jan. 11, causing the grounding of all U.S. flights for several hours.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said he was “pessimistic about this committee’s ability … to get responsible legislation” pushed through both chambers of Congress and signed into law by an Oct. 1 deadline.

“We need to do our work, and we need to do it in a timely fashion,” Womack said.

NTD Photo
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), speaks during a congressional subcommittee hearing in Washington on April 26, 2023. (Janice Hisle/The Epoch Times via screenshot of live video)

Other Stressors

None of this bodes well at a time when the U.S. Department of Transportation asked airlines to cut 10 percent of their summer flight schedules for the New York corridor. There, air-traffic control towers are suffering from staffing as low as 54 percent; the national average staffing level is 81 percent, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a recent statement.

Further complicating matters, Nolen has announced that he’ll be leaving the agency soon. Nolen has served as acting administrator for a year and is waiting for President Joe Biden to name a second nominee. Biden’s first choice, Denver Airport Administrator Phil Washington, stepped aside in March after facing criticism for his lack of “direct experience” with aviation.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chair of the subcommittee, thanked Nolen for his leadership and said, “By all accounts, your steady hand and safety expertise [have] served our nation well during this critical period.”

He and Nolen both said the United States boasts the world’s most complex and safest air travel system.

But, Nolen said, “Simply put, safety is not free.”

Ten recent “close calls,” near-collisions of aircraft so far this year, “remind us that safety requires continuous, predictable, and robust funding,” he told the committee.

NTD Photo
Lawmakers hear testimony from Billy Nolen, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, in Washington on April 26, 2023. (Janice Hisle/The Epoch Times via screenshot of live video.)

Nearly $20 Billion Sought

In written testimony, Nolen recommended that Congress approve the Biden administration’s request for nearly $20 billion to “operate and enhance our airspace system” during fiscal year 2024.

When combined with $5 billion in advanced annual appropriations under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the FAA’s total funding request is $24.8 billion, Nolen said.

With a requested $117 million, the agency would be able to hire 1,800 new air-traffic control trainees, 300 more trainees than the previous fiscal year. This will also help ease a training backlog caused when the agency’s Air Traffic Control Training Academy was shut down in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nolen said.

“Funding to hire and train air traffic controllers is only part of the equation. They need modern equipment and fully maintained facilities to perform their duty,” he wrote.

That equipment includes the Notice to Air Missions system, which failed in January. The budget requests $19.6 million “to retire our aging databases and applications and move to a more reliable, modern system,” Nolen wrote.

“We cannot modernize for tomorrow if we don’t keep pace for today,” he told the subcommittee.

Nolen pointed out that civil aviation contributes about $1.8 trillion annually to the national economy, provides 10.9 million jobs, and constitutes 5.2 percent of the gross domestic product.

“The FAA contributes to the success of this industry,” he said, “while always upholding our commitment to maintain the safest, most efficient airspace in the world.”

From The Epoch Times

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