|Acting FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta.
By Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
As Acting FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta prepares for his probable turn as the agency's next administrator, he told AirVenture Today he's "very optimistic" about how the FAA and the industry it regulates will look in a few years.
The acting administrator's comments came during an exclusive, wide-ranging interview earlier this week at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2012, his first ever visit to the fly-in.
Huerta, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the FAA's deputy administrator on June 23, 2010, became acting administrator December 5, 2011, upon the resignation of then-Administrator Randy Babbitt. President Obama has since nominated him for a full, five-year term as the nation's chief aviation official. The U.S. Senate could confirm his nomination as early as next week.
"Unbelievable," Huerta responded when asked for his reaction to AirVenture. "When you get in here and just see the size and the scale of it and all aspects of aviation - from kids who are working on their projects to incredibly experienced people, sort of the elder statesmen, who have been around and whom everyone is asking, 'What was it like back in the day?'"
But AirVenture wasn't the only thing on the acting administrator's mind. With a background in technology and managing transportation-system demand - he served as a managing director of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and oversaw the planning and construction of a variety of Olympic transportation facilities - he clearly relishes his opportunity to transform the ways in which the FAA operates.
Huerta is very aware of where the agency has been and to where he'd like to lead. In particular, he views the FAA's future as perched on a three-legged stool. Technology is one of those legs.
"When I came to the agency, the real focus was NextGen. I now have a slightly different view of these next couple of years: Technology is extremely important. We're at the beginning stages - and actually well into - a very significant technological transformation. That's one piece of a three-legged stool."
The agency's plan for a next-generation air traffic control system - NextGen - is based on that technological transformation. Already, aircraft operators are dealing with the coming changes, most notably with the requirement to equip with automated dependent surveillance-broadcast systems, or ADS-B, by January 1, 2020. On that date, operators will be required to carry and use ADS-B equipment if they want to continue accessing basically the same airspace in which today a Mode C transponder is required.
When asked about ADS-B and concerns it will be obsolete by its implementation date, Huerta quickly disagreed.
"I don't think it's going to be obsolete. Think about how we've had for 50 years a radar-based system; it's served us very, very well. We're going about this in a very deliberate fashion."
But don't ADS-B's benefits from the long-term reduction of radar sites and ground-based navigational facilities really accrue more to the agency instead of the operator, AirVenture Today asked.
"For the agency, yeah, there are certainly benefits to it. The benefits for us are that if we can relieve controller workload in terms of things like transmissions, readback/hearback errors are greatly diminished. But we're also greatly reducing the time a controller has to spend on the radio.
"Two big benefits for GA: One big benefit is we're easier to get hold of. But the other thing is, if we can handle traffic more efficiently, we're actually opening up more airspace for you. And that's another big advantage."
Another leg of the stool is the people who work at the FAA, Huerta told AirVenture Today.
"The other thing going on is the FAA is going through a generational transition as well. Between now and 2014, about 30 percent of our workers is going to be eligible for retirement. That's not to say they're going to, but they would be eligible to.
"And we have a large number of very ambitious, very young, really smart people that are coming into the FAA. They still have that passion for aviation that's always been there, but they come at it in a different way. They're much more technologically proficient, they're more comfortable [with technology]. ... So, we're going through this generational change at the same time we're going through this technological change."
The third component of Huerta's approach to managing the FAA involves changing the agency's philosophy.
"Since the earliest days of the FAA and the earliest days of innovation, our relationship with our industry has always been what I would call a compliance-based relationship: We issue regulations and you comply with them.
"In recent years, we've moved much more toward the use of an analytic and risk-based approach. And that's what ASAP (the FAA's aviation safety action program) [and other programs are designed to do]: share information.
"What that's really established is that maintaining safety in aviation is a shared responsibility. So, we're going through a philosophical transition at the same time."
NTSB E-AB safety recommendations
Of course, several other issues confront general aviation and the homebuilder community. One example is the aftermath of the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) yearlong study into the safety of experimental amateur-built aircraft, the background and results of which were reported in yesterday's edition of AirVenture Today; the NTSB made 12 recommendations to the FAA, including regulatory changes. We asked the acting administrator how the FAA planned to respond.
"The roles of the NTSB and the FAA are well understood. The NTSB makes recommendations to us and then it's really up to us to take the recommendations but also to start the larger conversation with everyone in industry and to consider the full scope of factors that ultimately result in what we're going to do about that.
"Whatever comes out of this whole thing, you want it to be smart. You don't want to be stifling innovation. You don't want to be inadvertently driving up costs when you don't need to. Yeah, everyone wants the system to be safe, but at the same time, finding that right balance is really important."
Pilot's Bill of Rights legislation
Another issue is the Pilot's Bill of Rights (PBOR) legislation developed by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), a measure supported by EAA and other aviation organizations. Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed that measure, sending it to the White House for the president's signature into law.
The PBOR contains various reforms of the FAA's enforcement process against pilot violations, including a path for appeals from agency decisions different from the historical referral to the NTSB. Also in the bill is a mandate that the FAA improve the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) system and rework the medical certificate application to minimize confusion and facilitate the process. AirVenture Today asked the acting administrator about the agency's view of the bill and its implementation.
"We've certainly recommended that the president sign the bill," he responded. "I would be very surprised" if the president doesn't sign it, Huerta added.
"The two issues that we are looking pretty carefully at are the relationship between us and the NTSB - and those are conversations we're having with the NTSB - and then finally, the rights of appeal to a federal district court. We'll be looking pretty carefully at it."
In late June, Huerta went before the Senate committee considering his nomination to head the FAA to answer questions about his thoughts on how to lead the FAA. The Senate has not scheduled a vote to confirm his nomination at this time, but observers expect it to occur in the near future.
"I'm very pleased and honored to have been nominated. I had a very thorough hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee.
"My focus, and what the White House and the secretary of transportation have told me, is to focus on running the agency.
"We'll have some tough conversations - we're going to have a lot of disagreements - but I think that we're going to solve a lot of problems and the reason we're going to do that is we're going to do it together," he told AirVenture Today.
"I really and truly believe that these next two or three years at the FAA - maybe those five years - the decisions we are going to make are going to set the stage for how aviation's going to operate in the next 25, 30, 40 years. It's a very exciting time.
"That can be incredibly scary if you think about it that way, but it's a great opportunity because we've had a wonderful history as an agency, we've had a wonderful history as an aviation sector, and now we're going through this transformation and I'm very optimistic about what's going to come out on the back end."