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Airline safety—something that many travelers take for granted in the US—has been top of mind this year. Passengers everywhere might be feeling some nerves after a panel of a Boeing 737 Max 9 blew out during an Alaska Airlines flight in early January, a shocking incident that's been followed by accusations of quality control issues on Boeing’s production lines, and possibly those of its contractors.
And a major milestone for improving airline safety is coming up next month, of which travelers should take note: On March 8, the Federal Aviation Agency's (FAA) funding will expire, prompting a vote in the US Senate to refund and reauthorize it for five more years. Don't be put off by the bureaucratic details—reauthorizing the agency is crucial to improving safety standards in America’s air travel system and potentially preventing another crisis like the one Boeing is currently facing. “Making sure that air travel is safe, making sure that the growth in air travel is supported, these are all things that are at stake in FAA reauthorization,” Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told Spectrum News in December. “It can also have a big effect on the passenger experience.”
The FAA reauthorization bill is essentially a budget and a new set of legislative priorities that lawmakers in Congress give the agency every five years. Among the issues covered in this year’s bill are addressing the ongoing air traffic controller shortage, modernizing safety technology at airports, and increasing staff levels within the FAA—including in safety and technical oversight positions.
“Ultimately the FAA is responsible for air safety in the United States, and the agency has myriad responsibilities in overseeing airlines, airports, repair stations, aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing, and the licensing of pilots, mechanics, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, and more,” says William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. The funding is crucial to keep all of these systems running smoothly.
The reauthorization bill was first passed by the House in June 2023. Since then, it has remained stalled in the Senate, where lawmakers have extended the deadline twice and passed stop-gap funding instead of approving a full bill. If the agency is not reauthorized in a timely manner, “today’s service disruptions and capacity reductions will be further exacerbated," the National Business Aviation Association said in a January 23 letter to Congress, urging lawmakers to pass the bill in full. "We simply can’t afford our national air system to continue to be stretched so thin. We need to move forward on safety, not backward.”
One area of the air travel system that has undeniably been stretched thin is the FAA itself. “The FAA has been woefully underfunded and understaffed not for years but for decades, dating back across both parties and multiple administrations to the Reagan years,” McGee explains. “This is less a political issue and more a systemic and long-standing problem. A key way to address safety concerns about FAA oversight of Boeing and the airlines is for Congress to provide the FAA with much-needed resources.”
In fact, the largest chunk of the bill’s allotment—$67.5 billion—would go toward funding key FAA safety programs, including reforms to certifying new planes as airworthy. These reforms would establish “new transparency, oversight and accountability requirements to promote full compliance with FAA safety standards for designing and manufacturing aircraft,” says a release from the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which introduced the bill to the Senate.
The changes would build upon safety reforms that were first passed in 2020 as a result of the Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019. It will also require the agency to “fill key safety positions and gaps in the technical workforce related to aircraft certification,” the release says. These initiatives could potentially play a direct role in preventing another incident like the Max 9 panel blowout. (Although the NTSB released its preliminary report on the incident on Tuesday, which stated the panel flew off due to missing bolts, the exact cause of the missing bolts hasn’t yet been confirmed.)
Another crisis that has slowly been unfolding across the national air system is the shortage of air traffic controllers, an issue caused in part by the long pause in controller training during the COVID-19 pandemic. The FAA has made progress on training more air traffic controllers since then, but is still a long way from its goal of hiring an additional 3,000 ATC professionals. “To compensate for staffing shortages, some air traffic controllers are working mandatory overtime and a six-day work week, which can lead to higher levels of stress in an already stressful job, as well as elevated levels of fatigue,” says Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of Flight Safety Foundation. “Both factors could negatively impact safety. Also, less than optimum staffing levels can lead to delays during busy travel periods and add further stress to safety margins.”
Those delays have already been felt by passengers, especially during peak travel seasons. “As we wait for more controllers to enter the pipeline, the FAA has correctly ordered US airlines to curtail flight operations, particularly in large markets such as New York City,” says McGee. “In the interim, we're seeing packed cabins and increases in flight delays and cancellations. It's in the public's best interest for ATC to be fully staffed and resourced.”
Having fully staffed ATC teams would also help improve runway safety—an issue that has taken on new urgency following the recent spate of near-collisions between aircraft at airports across the country. In 2023, the amount of runway incursions (an industry term for a near-miss caused by a plane being in the wrong place) jumped by 44% year over year. In addition to hiring more air traffic controllers, the legislation would also help prevent collisions by deploying runway safety technologies to more airports that can track aircraft and other vehicles’ exact location on the runway. Other FAA technologies and systems, including the Notice to All Air Missions communication network that failed in January 2023 and briefly caused a ground stop across the nation, would be modernized as well.
Currently, the bipartisan bill allots $107 billion to the FAA to accomplish these goals through 2028. That amount is relatively standard for upgrades across the air travel system over the course of several years, according to Jeff Forrest, professor and chair of the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at MSU Denver. “Delaying needed upgrades of necessary infrastructure will only add to future costs and reduce efficiency,” Forrest says. “Without the fully authorized bill, many systems will be left fragile and suspect to potential failure, requiring stop-gap measures that will decrease efficiencies and effectiveness of air travel and air commerce in the US.”
Letting the full bill languish negates a key idea behind reauthorizing the FAA every few years: Its initiatives are meant to be forward-looking and preventative, not reactive. “It's very important that we never take the aviation safety record of this country for granted,” Buttigieg said in December. “The fact that we've gone more than 10 years without a fatal airliner crash doesn't mean we've arrived at some kind of safety destination. It means we need to accelerate the journey and take close calls and things that could have been an incident just as seriously as we would take the aftermath of an actual incident. And that's exactly what we're doing.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler