DALLAS (AP) – Airline executives bristled last year when government officials, led by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, blamed the carriers for causing thousands of flight cancellations and mistreating their customers.
The shoe is on the other foot now after a technology outage at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded planes for a time earlier this week, but airline leaders are taking a different tack.
They’ve avoided harsh words and score-settling. Instead they’re calling on Congress and the Biden administration to give the FAA more staff and more money to upgrade its systems.
“The FAA, I know, is doing the very best they can with what they have, but we need to stand behind the FAA,” Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ed Bastian said on Friday.
American Airlines CEO Robert Isom praised the FAA for “calling a time out” on Wednesday morning – temporarily barring planes nationwide from taking off – while it fixed a system that provides safety and other information to pilots and airline dispatchers. He said it showed that safety comes first.
“Investment is required,” Isom told CNBC. “It’s going to be billions of dollars, and it’s not something that is done overnight.”
The airline executives, of course, have an interest in making sure that the FAA can function.
The agency manages the nation’s airspace and hires air traffic controllers who must juggle a mix of passenger and cargo jets, smaller private planes, helicopters and drones.
Bastian said the FAA’s lack of adequate staffing is causing longer flight times and making it harder to operate in congested parts of the Northeast and Florida. “There is no question that the investment in a modernised air-traffic control system will drive a tremendous amount of efficiencies as well as growth, which will mean better service for the American public,” he told reporters.
Airline executives no doubt want to remain in the good graces of the bureaucrats who regulate them. Isom went out of his way to praise the leadership ability of Buttigieg, who heads the FAA’s parent organisation.
Airlines have been pushing the FAA to modernise the air-traffic control system for years. They argue that a faster and complete rollout of a so-called NextGen plan to modernise the national airspace system will benefit the travelling public by making flights more efficient and reliable. The FAA’s technology is certain to be a key issue this year, as Congress considers legislation that would govern the agency for the next five years. But the initial response from Capitol Hill has been to demand answers from Buttigieg about this week’s debacle.
On Friday, more than 120 members of Congress said in a letter to Buttigieg that “the FAA was well aware of the issues facing the notice to air missions (NOTAM) system” which failed this week.
In the letter signed by 71 Republicans and 51 Democrats they said Congress directed the FAA in 2018 to modernise the NOTAM system, and FAA requested money to replace “vintage hardware” that supports it.