ALPA Urges Congress to Act Decisively to Maintain Safety Standards

Ambrosi Encourages Expansion of NextGen Technologies To All U.S. Airports

By Gavin Francis, Senior Aviation Writer
Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president, second from left, testifies at a Senate subcommittee hearing titled “Addressing Close Calls to Improve Aviation Safety,” urging lawmakers to remain vigilant in protecting aviation safety in the United States.

Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president, testified on Nov. 9, 2023, at a Senate subcommittee hearing titled “Addressing Close Calls to Improve Aviation Safety” to urge lawmakers to remain vigilant in protecting aviation safety in the United States. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovation, called the hearing to examine recent serious close-call incidents across the national airspace system (NAS) and consider efforts to improve safety.

Despite an increase in the number of these incidents reported in 2023, the U.S. aviation system continues to operate at a very high level of safety. But Ambrosi stated that more can be done to enhance safety and recommended deploying additional technologies at all U.S. airports, regardless of size or location, that would augment existing systems.

“More work can and must be done to prevent near misses and other incidents,” said Ambrosi. “ALPA strongly supports doing more to advance NextGen to enhance the ability of pilots and air traffic controllers to pinpoint the position of aircraft while in flight and on the ground. Moving NextGen forward will not only help prevent near misses and enhance safety, but it will also improve traffic management and aircraft utilization, reduce flight delays, cut aviation emissions, and contribute to airline profitability.”

ALPA’s president appeared with other aviation stakeholders from government and industry, including the NTSB, the FAA, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Ambrosi’s recommendation for making the much-needed technologies available at more airports included expansion of capabilities in several specific areas: flight profile optimization, Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System remote surveillance displays, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out equipage, and NextGen equipage.

“The level of safety we have wouldn’t be possible without continuous transparent and collaborative communication between the FAA and industry,” said Tim Arel, chief operating officer for the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. “At the FAA, we’re proud of our proactive safety culture, which emphasizes the value of nonpunitive sharing of data and safety information between the agency and industry to reduce risk and maximize safety. Nevertheless, we view even one runway incursion or other unsafe operation in the NAS as too many, and the FAA is committed to the relentless pursuit of continual improvement in everything we do. Any runway incursion or other event in the NAS, whether isolated or part of a possible trend, is a concern, and we don’t take it lightly.”

The FAA provides grants and incentives to help airports modernize their facilities and improve safety and efficiency. But ongoing efforts to provide funding and support for airport technology upgrades to aging infrastructure have been difficult. Long-term funding for the agency that would make sustained improvements possible has been hampered by competing interests on Capitol Hill. This subcommittee hearing took place as Senate negotiations over its version of the FAA reauthorization bill continued among members of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Lawmakers hear from representatives of government and airline industry stakeholders groups about staffing challenges among the nation’s air traffic controllers and the need to expand crucial aviation safety technologies to more airports across the country.

“The most important action Congress can take for the safety of the NAS would be to pass a long-term, comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill before the end of the year,” said Rich Santa, NATCA’s president. “For the better part of two decades, the FAA, like much of the federal government, has faced an unstable, unpredictable funding stream—whether due to the risk of lapsed appropriations or the risk of lapsed authorization—with interruptions that have negatively affected all aspects of the agency, making it increasingly difficult to maintain the safety and efficiency of the NAS.”

A shortage of air traffic controllers is one of the contributing factors that aviation safety advocates say has led to the number of recent close-call incidents. Some controllers have been forced to work extended hours, including 10-hour days and six-day workweeks.

The FAA identified 23 serious close-call incidents over the last fiscal year, an increase of 16 such incidents from the year before. The NTSB has investigated six of those cases, including a Delta Air Lines airplane at John F. Kennedy International Airport that avoided a near collision with an American Airlines flight and a FedEx Express cargo aircraft at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport that came within 100 feet of a Southwest Airlines passenger flight.

“While these events are incredibly rare, our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we can’t ignore,” said Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB’s chair. She pointed to various factors that have contributed to the current situation, including a surge in demand for air transportation following the pandemic, as well as staffing issues resulting in irregular work schedules among pilots and air traffic controllers. “Where you end up with that is distraction and fatigue. You’re missing and forgetting things.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, acknowledged the pressures felt by many aviation workers, particularly the burden placed on the nation’s air traffic controllers. She emphasized the need to alleviate that burden by hiring more controllers, a challenge she hopes to address in the reauthorization bill.

“We’ve cited staffing shortages, which lead to scheduling issues, fatigue, lack of or deficient supervisory oversight, distraction, ineffective scanning, and the need for value-added training,” said Cantwell. “That’s why we need the additional FAA air traffic controllers…. We can’t have people working six days a week. We need people who have the ample amount of rest and capability to deal with, as my colleague Senator Duckworth said, probably one of the most stressful and challenging jobs there is.”

Training standards for pilots were also a focus of discussion during the hearing, as some airlines have sought to lower the current requirement for actual flight hours, arguing that some of those hours could be replaced with time in a flight simulator. FAA regulations require a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time to earn an airline transport pilot certificate necessary to fly in FAR Part 121 operations, with some exceptions for military experience and approved flight training programs. ALPA is the strongest supporter of this regulation.

But there’s concern among some who say that swapping actual flight time with simulator time could be problematic if specific training requirements aren’t spelled out. “As a military pilot, I flew simulators, and I agree that if you have six degrees of motion, full-immersion simulators, that’s an immense tool and a very useful tool,” said Duckworth. “But I do think that if we substitute some of those 1,500 hours and just say ‘structured simulator time,’ but don’t specifically say what type of simulator and what kind of training, that’s going to be a problem…. So I think we need to be clear that we’re talking about full-motion, six-degree, full-immersion simulators.”

Ambrosi also underscored the fact that, despite recent incidents, progress made in aviation safety has resulted in the safest, most efficient transportation system in the world. But he emphasized that a key factor has always been at least two qualified pilots on the flight deck.

“The presence of two highly trained and well-rested pilots working on every airliner flight deck is another critical factor in safety,” Ambrosi testified. “We saw this during the near-miss incident in Austin in February that could have resulted in tragedy if not for the actions of the two FedEx pilots working on board the flight deck. The success that we’ve achieved in aviation safety didn’t happen by chance.”

Ambrosi noted that critical changes to regulations governing pilot qualification and training, fatigue, airline operations and maintenance, and technology have all made air travel exceptionally safe. But the critical element, the most important assurance of safety, will always be the highly skilled and professional flight crew of at least two pilots who command the aircraft.

This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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