FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt doesn’t want pilots to get too comfortable.
“When someone sees a new pilot, it sometimes makes you smile because they are so cautious,” he said last Friday during the Meet the FAA forum at Sun ’n Fun. “But I don’t want you get too comfortable — stay cautious.”
Babbitt, a long-time pilot who started as a CFI in Florida before flying for Eastern Airlines, said pilots need to go back to the basics, concentrating on the fundamentals. “I don’t care how many times you’ve done that checklist — do it again,” he said. “How often do you test yourself? How often do you ask yourself, ‘what would I do right now if the engine quit? Where would I land?’ Just because your first scan of the cockpit is OK, that doesn’t mean you stop scanning. It’s all about situational awareness. It’s a process that never stops.”
When the aviation community talks about professionalism, the first thought is often the airlines and pilots who fly commercially. “But there should be the same level of professional in all cockpits,” he said. “If you have a passenger, they are trusting their life to you. Treat every flight like your life depends on it — because it does.”
Babbitt, whose address was streamed live over the Internet, touched on a number of topics during his hour-long address, from FAA reauthorization to alternative fuels to the new aircraft re-registration process. But through it all, safety was the No. 1 message he wanted to get across.
While the House of Representatives finally approved its FAA reauthorization bill Friday, the Senate and House bills now must be reconciled before the agency, which has been operating on 18 short-term extension, is permanently funded.
The budget is also a top priority and while all budgets in the federal government are facing cuts, the FAA “has put forward a budget that allows us to do what we need to do,” he said. “But we will not skimp on safety. We will continue to run the safest airspace in the world — bar none.”
A top priority is the Next Generation Air Traffic system, known as NextGen, which will transition ATC from a radar-based system to a GPS satellite-based system, which promises to increase safety, while at the same time increasing capacity in the air system.
Certification is also on the administrator’s radar screen, noting there are currently 2,200 items — from electronics to winglets — in front of the FAA awaiting certification. “If I don’t have enough inspectors to approve these products, we’re delaying safety,” he said, adding there are three factories also waiting an FAA nod — one for HondaJet, one for Embraer, and one for Boeing. “If you tell me I don’t have the funding for inspectors, we’re delaying the employment of thousands of people. That just doesn’t make business sense.”
If Congress cuts the FAA budget, President Obama has promised to veto the cuts, Babbitt said. “We cannot run the safest system in the world on funding from 10 years ago.”
Finding a replacement for 100LL also is a top priority for the FAA, he said. “We are the last people in this country that still burn leaded fuel,” he said.
What the FAA wants is a drop-in fuel, he said, noting there’s a rulemaking committee working on the issue with input from the industry. “The EPA has agreed we’ll be allowed to come up with an alternative before they tell us time is up,” he said. “I’m comfortable we can make that timeline.”
Babbitt also brought up the agency’s new residential through the fence policy, which basically says those agreements that now exist can remain, but no agreements will not be made. “About 75 airports are affected,” he said, noting private airports that do not accept federal funding “can do what they want.”
“You’ve heard that saying: Loan a man a dollar and you’ve got a friend; loan him $100 and you’ve got a partner?” he said. “Well we’ve loaned these airports millions of dollars, so we are their partners and we get a voice.”
The new aircraft registration process also was brought up by Babbitt, who reported that of the nation’s 275,000 aircraft, about 110,000 to 120,000 don’t have current registrations. “We don’t know if they’ve been sold and if they were sold, if they were sold for scrap or sold to a buyer in another country,” he said. “We need to keep track of who owns our airplanes.”
Over the next three years, all aircraft in the U.S. will have gone through the re-registration process, he said. “We’ll cancel all the N-numbers of planes that haven’t been re-registered by that point,” he said, noting that usually gets people’s attention.
The re-registration process also should help prevent other pilots going through what GA icons John and Martha King went through several months ago when they were met on the ramp at gunpoint by police officers who thought they were flying a stolen plane.
“That was the worst ramp check I ever had,” John King told Babbitt, who noted that when he heard about the incident he said to himself, “you gotta be kidding.”
What had happened was the police officers had a four-year-old print-out, which showed the N-number was to a stolen aircraft. But what he didn’t know was that the FAA recycles N-numbers and that’s what had happened. “But we update our website daily, so a quick check would have shown that the plane wasn’t stolen,” Babbitt said. “We hope that once the registry is cleaned up, there will be accurate numbers in the database and that won’t happen again — but if it does, I won’t be administrator,” he added with a laugh.