James Challou, MJLST Staffer
The last year has been one that the airline industry is eager to forget. Not only did a record number of flight delays and cancellations occur, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suffered an extremely rare complete system outage and Southwest dealt with a holiday travel meltdown. These incidents, coupled with recent near collisions on runways, have drawn increased scrutiny from lawmakers in Congress as this year they face a September 30threauthorization deadline for the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. And while the Federal Aviation Act is a hotly debated topic, lawmakers and industry professionals all agree that a failure to meet the reauthorization deadline could spell disaster.
The need for reauthorization arises from the structure and funding system of the FAA. Reauthorization is a partial misnomer. Though the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the practice of FAA reauthorization originated with the Airport and Airway Revenue Act of 1970 which created the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (Trust Fund) that is used to finance FAA investments. The authority to collect taxes and to spend from the Trust Fund must be periodically reauthorized to meet agency and consumer needs. Currently, the Trust Fund provides funds for four major FAA accounts: Operations, Facilities & Equipment (F&E), Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D), and Grants-in-Aid for Airports. If the FAA’s authorization expired without an extension, then the agency would be unable to spend revenues allocated from the Trust Fund. The flip side of the unique reauthorization process is that it offers a regular opportunity for Congress to hold the FAA accountable for unfulfilled mandates, to respond to new problems in air travel, and to advocate for stronger consumer protections because enacted changes in reauthorization acts only span a set time period.
On top of the recent spate of industry complications and near disasters, Congress must sift through a myriad of other concerns and issues that pervade the airline industry for the potential upcoming reauthorization. Consumer protection has become an increasingly pressing and hot-button issue as the deluge of canceled flights in the past year left many consumers disgruntled by the treatment and compensation they received. In fact, the Consumer Federation of America and several other consumer and passengers’ right groups recently called upon the House Transportation Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee to prioritize consumer protections. Their requests include requiring compensation when consumers’ flights are delayed and canceled, holding airlines accountable for publishing unrealistic flight schedules, ending junk fee practices in air travel, including prohibiting fees for family seating and for other such services, and requiring all-in pricing, ending federal preemption of airline regulation and allowing state attorneys general and individuals to hold airlines accountable, encouraging stronger DOT enforcement of passenger protections, and prioritizing consumer voices and experiences.
However, not all are sold on enhancing consumer protections via the reauthorization process. Senator Ted Cruz, the top Republican lawmaker on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has expressed opposition to increased agency and government intervention in the airline industry, citing free market and regulatory overreach concerns. Instead, Cruz and his allies have suggested that the FAA’s technology is outdated, and their sole focus should be on modernizing it.
Indeed, it appears that in the wake of the FAA system outage most interested parties and lawmakers agree that the aging FAA technology needs updating. While at first glance one might think this provides common ground, the opinions on how to update the FAA’s technology are wide-ranging. For example, while some have flagged IT infrastructure and aviation safety systems as the FAA technology to target in order to augment the FAA’s cybersecurity capacity, others are more concerned with providing the agency direction on the status of new airspace inhabitants such as drones and air taxis to facilitate entrants into the market. Even despite cross-party assent that the FAA’s technology necessitates some level of baseline update, a lack of direction for what this means in practice remains.
Another urgent and seemingly undisputed issue that the reauthorization effort faces is FAA staffing. The FAA’s workforce has severely diminished in the past decade. Air traffic controllers, for example, number 1,000 fewer than a decade ago, and more than 10% are eligible to retire. Moreover, a shortage of technical operations employees has grown so severe that union officials have dubbed it to be approaching crisis levels. Resultingly, most lawmakers agree that expanding the FAA’s workforce is paramount.
However, despite the dearth of air traffic controllers and technical operations employees, this proposition has encountered roadblocks as well. Some lawmakers view this as a solution to increase diversity within the ranks of the FAAand offer solutions revolving around this. Currently, only 2.6% of aviation mechanics are women and 94% of aircraft pilots male and 93% of them White. Lawmakers have made several proposals intended to rectify this disparity centering around reducing the cost of entry into FAA professions. However, Republicans have largely refuted such efforts and criticized such efforts as distractions from the chief concern of safety. Additionally, worker groups continue to air concerns about displacing qualified U.S. pilot candidates and undercutting current pilot pay. Any such modifications to the FAA reauthorization bill will require bipartisan support.
Finally, a lingering battle between Democrats and Republicans regarding the confirmation of President Biden’s nominated commissioner have hampered efforts to forge a bipartisan reauthorization bill. Cruz, again spearheading the Republican contingent, has decried Biden’s nominee for possessing no aviation experience and being overly partisan. Proponents, however, have pointed out that only two of the last five commissioners have had any aviation experience and lauded the nominee’s credentials and experience in the military. The surprisingly acrid fight bodes ominously for a reauthorization bill that will have to be bipartisan and is subject to serious time constraints.
The FAA reauthorization process provides valuable insight into how Congress decides agency directives. However, while safety and technology concerns remain the joint focal point of Congress’ intent for the reauthorization bill, in practice there seems to be little common ground between lawmakers. With a September 13th deadline looming, it is increasingly important that lawmakers cooperate to collectively hammer out a reauthorization bill. Failure to do so would severely cripple the FAA and the airline industry in general.