The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on Wednesday to look into the FAA’s progress on implementing reforms mandated by the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act of 2020 (ACSAA). Stemming from the fatal crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610, both Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, ACSAA called for changes including revisions to the agency’s organization delegation authorization (ODA) system, implementation of safety management systems (SMS) for manufacturers and establishment of new whistleblower protections and reporting channels. It also authorized funding for recruiting and retaining additional qualified technical experts.
Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen, the sole witness at Wednesday’s hearing, noted that the FAA has currently enacted over 60 percent of ACSAA requirements. Emphasizing the importance of safety management systems (SMSs), he highlighted a recent notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would expand SMS requirements to include charter, commuter and air tour operators as well as aircraft manufacturers. He further stated that FAA has currently accepted more than 60 voluntary SMSs for Part 135 operators, Part 91 air tour operators and Part 145 repair stations and five for design and manufacturing organizations. In regards to staffing, Nolen reported that the FAA’s Aviation Safety (AVS) organization currently employs 7,489 people with plans to employ 7,775 by the end of the fiscal year along with hiring additional Chief Scientific and Technical Advisors (CSTAs).
Among the concerns raised by committee members were bottlenecks in aircraft registry and aviation medicals. Nolen stated that there is a plan in place to reduce the aircraft registration wait times from 180 days to 75 days by the end of April. He also said that improvements are planned for the agency’s MedXPress system to allow for more transparency in application tracking, but a timeline was not given. He noted that the FAA is also working on a replacement for MedXPress.
Committee Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., stated that the committee had heard good reports on the FAA’s ODA changes, but that there was concern regarding slow implementation of the law, noting particularly that the agency has yet to complete a workforce review of aircraft certification staff. Cantwell remarked that the hearing was being conducted in advance of the committee’s work on the FAA reauthorization bill in part to “get a good sense of exactly where we are on these issues before we dive into things that we also want to evaluate as part of a reauthorization.” The committee has a total of four hearings on reauthorization scheduled.
Over the course of Wednesday’s hearing, several committee members also voiced concerns with the nomination of Phil Washington to the position of FAA Administrator, speaking to Nolen’s much more extensive aviation experience in comparison. Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, reiterated previous statements that a nominee like Nolen would receive much more support than Washington. Nolen voiced his support for Washington, stating that he felt Washington was fully qualified to lead the agency.
The complete hearing can be viewed at www.commerce.senate.gov/2023/3/implementation-and-oversight-of-the-aircraft-certification-safety-and-accountability-act.