“”Safest aviation system in the world””

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of the House Aviation Subcommittee bragged that the United States has the safest aviation system in the world, but they still raked the FAA over the coals for not doing enough to address key safety issues.

Although the recent oversight hearing was scheduled before the Lexington, Kentucky, Comair wrong-runway accident, that incident was the focus of much of the lawmakers’ criticism. Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) recited the problems with air traffic controller staffing and charged that the FAA “”has not addressed staffing questions.””

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) added: “”I think we have a system in crisis.”” He noted that repair service by the airlines is being outsourced to foreign nations and equipment the FAA needs is far behind schedule. “”It is only a matter of time until it (the ATC system) breaks,”” he said.

Several members of the subcommittee expressed surprise and concern that airlines are operating at some airports that do not have control towers. There are 145 such airports, according to Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA’s associate administrator for safety.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), ranking member of the subcommittee, bragged about aviation’s safety record in his opening statement, but laid heavy criticism on the FAA. He charged that FAA staffing is far below the number of inspectors it needs, and the agency is slow and non-responsive to rulemaking issues. He said that of 21 rulemaking issues now outstanding, only three are on schedule, with some taking a decade to resolve.

As various members complained about controller staffing at Lexington, Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) — a pilot — reminded his colleagues that pilots have a large part to play in safety. “”You don’t have to have controllers to make the system safe,”” he said. Citing the error of taking off on the wrong runway, Hayes declared the media created a false impression that the absence of the second controller was the major factor in the accident.

Another pilot on the subcommittee, Sam Graves (R-Mo.) told the witnesses from the FAA, Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that as the FAA goes forward he wants “”to be sure general aviation isn’t squeezed out.””

In a prepared statement, the GAO’s Gerald Dillingham warned that some of today’s problems “”could be an early warning for things to come.””

DOT’s Todd Zinser told the subcommittee that operational errors in ATC are still a concern, with 1,489 occurring last year.

Setting the stage for the hearing, Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) clearly established the safety of flight in the United States. He pointed out that the airlines carried 2.7 billion passengers on 50 million successful flights last year. On a typical day, he said, there are 55,000 instrument flight rules departures with 33,000 of them being commercial airlines. There are 180,000 takeoffs and landings at just the 485 airports with control towers. On a typical weekday late afternoon, about 7,000 aircraft are flying in the system. A person flying on a commercial airline flight, he said, is 40 times safer than riding on the safest section of the interstate highway system.

About half of all the flying in the world is in the United States. About 42% of the world’s airline departures are in the North American region, but this region accounts for only 8.6% of the world’s aviation accidents.

We’re safe, the representatives and witnesses declared, but we want to be better.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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