WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the first time in nearly two years, the FAA has a permanently-appointed administrator — J. Randolph “Randy” Babbitt.
His tenure is five years, giving the FAA some stability for planning, budgeting and organization.
Babbitt, who comes to office as the FAA faces a number of difficult issues, has been urged by some members of Congress and aviation groups to immediately tackle and resolve two major issues: First, settle the long-standing dispute between the FAA and air traffic controllers; and second, speed the development of the next generation of air traffic control (NextGen).
Resolution of the controllers’ issue began before Babbitt was confirmed. Jane Garvey, a former FAA administrator, was appointed to oversee the mediation process. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, praised Garvey’s appointment, saying “getting a new controller contract in place is the most important aviation issue.”
Controller retirements and low morale have plagued air traffic management since the FAA imposed work rules nearly three years ago when contract negotiations came to an impasse.
NextGen has been moving ahead slowly and there is a push from some areas for faster implementation. Airlines, particularly, want the system in place sooner than predicted to save fuel costs. Theoretically, NextGen will permit flights to travel in more direct routes instead of following airways on more jagged routes from VOR to VOR.
The man being looked to for resolution of these issues is an experienced pilot, an aggressive union leader, and an outspoken commenter on government programs. Babbitt, 62, earned his pilot’s license at the age of 16. He was a flight instructor while attending college and spent 25 years as an airline pilot flying DC-9s.
During his time with the airlines he became active with the AFL/CIO and in several activist positions with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). The union chose him as executive administrator. He held this position when Eastern Airline pilots went on strike in 1989, which cost 3,000 pilots their jobs and which many considered hurried the demise of Eastern. A year later he was elected president of ALPA. He served two terms as ALPA president, and then opened his own consulting business, which he later sold to the international consulting firm of Oliver Wyman, where he became a partner in the company’s aviation practice.
The FAA has been working under temporary funding for two years as Congress has failed to agree on a long-term reauthorization but, once again, both houses of Congress are trying to come to agreement. The Senate, which has been the block in the past, has started work on reauthorization and the House passed its version just before the Memorial Day recess.
Not all members of the House are pleased with the bill. It passed 275 to 151, with all no votes coming from Republicans.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), ranking member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the bill undermines the president and hundreds of thousands of federal employees, invites a trade war, and could kill thousands of U.S. jobs.
The House version, Mica said, undermines the sensitive negotiations going on to resolve the contract dispute between the FAA and the controllers union as it reinstates the controllers’ previous contract.
Mica adds that the bill is a “job killer” because an aircraft repair station provision violates bilateral agreements between the U.S. and Europe, which, he says, will invite retaliatory actions by foreign governments. Another provision sunsets the airline alliance antitrust immunity. “This ill-advised provision could kill an additional 15,000 airline jobs, according to the Air Transport Association,” Mica said.
The FAA is operating under temporary authorization, which expires in September. The Senate must pass its version of a bill, then the two houses go to conference to agree on a single bill, and pass that final version in both houses. The summer recess will shorten time for advancing the legislation.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.