FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on Tuesday gave lawmakers an update on how the agency is handling budget cuts from sequestration and its progress with the ongoing review of Boeing's attempt to return the 787 Dreamliner to commercial service, during the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation's aviation safety hearing.
Last month, the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration reduced FAA's operating budget by about $637 million, forcing Huerta to issue furloughs for the agency's 47,000 employees and close 149 air traffic control towers at airports with less than 150,000 flight operations per year. Huerta told the Senate committee that air travelers should expect significant delays on commercial flights because of the budget cuts' impact on FAA's ability to provide safety approvals and certifications, as well as its level of service for prolonged equipment outages.
"If sequestration means fewer flights can be safely accommodated in the NAS, then there will be fewer flights," said Huerta. "As a result of employee furloughs and prolonged equipment outages resulting from lower parts inventories and fewer technicians, travelers should expect significant delays. We are aware that these service reductions will adversely affect commercial, corporate, and general aviation operators and the traveling public."
On April 5, two days before the four week process of closing 149 air traffic control towers was scheduled to begin, FAA made a decision to delay the process until June 15. The delay was implemented to allow airport communities additional time to adjust to the closings, and decide whether they want to keep the towers open by providing the funding needed.
At the hearing, Huerta did not comment on lawsuits filed against his agency by several airports claiming that the closing of their towers violates a federal law meant to ensure that changes at airports do not impact safety.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV (D-WV) expressed frustration with "the lack of transparency" on how FAA has administered its budget reductions, and also said that the agency's budgetary issues will become more complicated in the fall when the 2014 fiscal year begins.
"The hard choices that the FAA has to make to implement the sequester will only be magnified this October when the next fiscal year begins. I know that the agency will never sacrifice safety, but it will be forced to limit every aspect of the system’s operations," said Rockefeller. "The implementation of NextGen will be delayed, our aerospace industry will suffer as certification of new technology and equipment is slowed, more towers could be forced to close, and critical safety rulemakings such as pilot training and qualification standards will take longer."
Boeing 787 Progress
Huerta, along with other panelists and lawmakers at the Senate hearing Tuesday, also talked about the agency's progress with the ongoing review of the Boeing 787's lithium-ion battery system redesign.
FAA grounded all in-service 787s in January, following separate incidents where two Japanese carriers experiencing overheating with the plane's battery system. Following the grounding, Boeing's engineering team redesigned the battery system to prevent overheating and further malfunctioning.
In March, FAA approved Boeing's certification plan for the 787's battery system redesign, requiring Boeing to conduct extensive testing and analysis to demonstrate compliance with safety regulations.
"The FAA is reviewing the test reports and analysis and will approve the redesign once we are satisfied Boeing has shown the redesigned battery system meets FAA requirements," said Huerta.
While not placing a timeline on a return to service for the Dreamliner, Huerta told reporters after the hearing that he expects to decide "very soon" whether to approve the redesigned battery system.
Related: FAA Delays Air Traffic Tower Closings