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With the aviation system under stress, the FAA may finally get a new leader

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been a year and a half since the Federal Aviation Administration had a Senate-confirmed leader on the job. That could begin to change tomorrow when the White House pick to lead the FAA faces a crucial vote in the Senate Commerce Committee. Michael Whitaker is a former airline executive who has served at the agency before, and he would be returning at a time when the aviation system is showing signs of stress, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Air traffic controllers are trained to keep their cool. So when you hear something like this, you know it's bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER #1: Delta 1943, cancel takeoff plans.

ROSE: In January, Delta and American planes nearly collided on a runway at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Here's the Delta pilot exhaling afterward via the website liveATC.net.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: All right, and - whew - Delta 1943.

ROSE: The next month, there was another close call on a foggy morning in Austin, Texas, when a FedEx plane came within 100 feet of landing on a Southwest jet that had been told to take off on the same runway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER #2: Southwest abort. FedEx is on the go.

ROSE: To be clear, flying is still incredibly safe. There have been no major U.S. plane crashes since 2009. But the close calls are adding up. Aviation experts say it's a troubling sign of a system under stress as it strains to keep up with a post-pandemic rebound in air travel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA CANTWELL: We need to hear today about a plan on how to tackle those safety issues across our skies.

ROSE: That's Democrat Maria Cantwell, the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, at a hearing earlier this month. Cantwell and other senators had a lot of questions about safety for President Biden's pick to lead the FAA, Michael Whitaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL WHITAKER: If confirmed, my priority will be the safety of the flying public. They have put their trust in the FAA to keep aviation the safest way to travel, and the world has looked to us for decades as the gold standard.

ROSE: But the gold standard is looking a bit tarnished after a year of close calls. The FAA has more than 11,000 air traffic controllers working today, but that's roughly 3,000 fewer than it needs. Whitaker said he'd work to rebuild that workforce quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHITAKER: I would view my role as administrator as chief recruitment officer - certainly for FAA, but also for the industry.

ROSE: Whitaker had a long career as an airline executive and served as deputy administrator at the FAA during the Obama administration. He's gotten a warmer welcome on Capitol Hill than the previous nominee, who withdrew after staunch opposition from Republicans, including Ted Cruz of Texas, the committee's ranking member. But even Cruz had some kind words this time around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: I'm glad that the administration has heeded my advice and nominated a person with significant experience in aviation.

ROSE: Whitaker's nomination has gotten wide support from the airline industry and its biggest unions - also from his former boss at the FAA.

MICHAEL HUERTA: Mike was completely unflappable, no matter what got thrown at us.

ROSE: Michael Huerta was the FAA administrator when Whitaker was his second-in-command. He says Whitaker is the right guy to lead the FAA at a challenging moment, though, Huerta warns, it will take time to rebuild the ranks of air traffic controllers.

HUERTA: You can't just hire people and expect them to be able to do the job. There's a very extended training program. Meanwhile, air traffic has come back, I think, much more rapidly than anyone was expecting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WHITAKER: They definitely need new investment. They need new technology.

ROSE: That's Michael Whitaker speaking to NPR's Morning Edition back in January, before he was nominated for the top job at the FAA. He said the agency needs a more stable source of funding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WHITAKER: Congress passes authorizations. They pass budgets. Those are inconsistent. They're not predictable. They're short-term. And then you have things like government shutdowns that interfere with the process.

ROSE: The FAA's current five-year authorization is set to expire in December. Whitaker's backers say having stable leadership at the agency won't fix its problems overnight, but it would be a good place to start.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRACE MARTIN SONG, "THIS MORNING (FEAT. ARIN RAY AND SMINO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.