‘Deeply Troubling’ Meltdown at FAA Set for Lawmaker Probes (1)

  • Congress must reauthorize aviation programs by Sept. 30
  • Lawmakers also planning to investigate Southwest chaos

(Updates throughout with lawmaker, Buttigieg comments.)

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Lawmakers are already seeking to investigate the grounding of flight operations across the country Wednesday, a move likely to influence a major upcoming aviation bill.

The Federal Aviation Administration halted thousands of flights nationwide early Wednesday after a pilot notification system failed. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he has directed an after-action review from his agency to determine causes and recommend next steps. The head of the Senate panel that oversees aviation also vowed to look into the meltdown.

“As the Committee prepares for FAA reauthorization legislation, we will be looking into what caused this outage and how redundancy plays a role in preventing future outages,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who leads the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said. “The public needs a resilient air transportation system.”

Congress must pass an FAA reauthorization bill by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The Senate panel is already planning hearings tied to the bill to look into the recent flight cancellations from Southwest Airlines.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), incoming ranking member of the Senate Commerce panel, called the flight grounding “just the latest example of dysfunction within the Department of Transportation.”

Photographer: Nathan Howard/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A traveler as flights are cancelled at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 11, 2023.

“The administration needs to explain to Congress what happened, and Congress should enact reforms in this year’s FAA reauthorization legislation,” Cruz said.

House lawmakers also said they would investigate. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said he has many questions about what occurred and wants a full briefing to lawmakers. He said he would also be leading an oversight letter into the incident.

“Just as DOT expected Southwest to make passengers whole after their leadership failures, I expect a prompt update on DOT’s efforts to do right by the passengers it has wronged,” he said in a statement.

GOP Concerns on Top FAA Role

Key Republicans are also raising questions about the lack of permanent leadership at the FAA. The agency has been without a Senate-confirmed leader since Steve Dickson resigned in March.

Biden recently renominated Phil Washington, CEO of Denver International Airport, to lead the agency. He was initially tapped in July but the Senate never held a nomination hearing. Republicans have scrutinized his aviation experience and ties to a Los Angeles search warrant.

“This incident also highlights why the public needs a competent, proven leader with substantive aviation experience leading the FAA,” Cruz said.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was the top Republican on Senate Commerce last year, used the outage to again criticize Washington’s aviation experience. “We need a new nominee,” Wicker said in a tweet. “We can’t leave the flying public’s wellbeing up to chance.”

Republican opposition could complicate Washington’s path to nomination but won’t necessarily derail it. The Democratic caucus has 51 votes in the Senate, giving them the power to confirm nominees without GOP support.

The FAA has also faced criticism from Republicans for other roles that need to be filled, beyond just the administrator. Graves said the incident “underscores the number of empty desks and vacant offices at the FAA,” adding that, “centuries of combined experience has gone out the door in the past several years and far too few of these positions have been filled.”

Read more: Biden to Reup FAA Nominee in Face of Uphill Confirmation Battle

Tech Upgrades

The major shutdown also spurred calls to update federal technology. Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the US Travel Association, urged federal policymakers to modernize air travel infrastructure in light of the problems.

“Today’s FAA catastrophic system failure is a clear sign that America’s transportation network desperately needs significant upgrades,” Freeman said in a statement.

Buttigieg said Wednesday the agency constantly needs to update its systems, and now is the right time to take another look at the technology, given the upcoming FAA reauthorization.

“We’ll be approaching Congress indicating the resources and strategies that we need for the next five years,” Buttigieg told reporters on the sidelines of a Transportation Research Board meeting. “But obviously, our more immediate focus is technical and understanding exactly how this happened.”

Some Republicans used the incident to criticize the Biden administration’s transportation policy more broadly. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.), a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the system outage “deeply troubling.”

“The Biden administration’s priorities are simply not focused on preventing these potentially catastrophic problems but, instead, on trivialities like ‘racist roads’ and eliminating gas-run vehicles,” Malliotakis said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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