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What does the FAA bill mean for airline employees?

Updated: May 10

Following years of turmoil at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the bipartisan FAA reauthorization deal has now been approved by the Senate and is awaiting final approval from the House. The Bill provides more than $105 billion to the FAA and another $738 million to the National Transportation Safety Board for airport modernization, technology programs and safety.


The Bill is chiefly aimed at addressing the serious issues caused by staff shortages in air traffic control. Praising the legislation, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “Both parties have every reason in the world to get FAA done as quickly and smoothly as possible, to keep our skies safe, our airports safe, our federal employees taken care of.”


The Bill is good news for airlines who have long complained of falling standards at the FAA, leading to a steep rise in collision near-misses. It also carries a variety of implications for both airline customers and staff, but is missing one expected component.


Staff-shortages


Staff shortages have resulted in severe impacts on safety, health and efficiency standards in the aviation industry. Over the last decade, the FAA has lost approximately 1,200 air traffic controllers and is currently facing a shortage of 3,000 workers. The Bill addresses these shortages by requiring the FAA to set maximum targets for hiring to increase staffing levels, and increasing access to high quality training via simulation systems which would reduce the time taken to certify by 27%.


The FAA has lost approximately 1,200 air traffic controllers over the past decade.

Elsewhere, the Bill broadens the route for entry into the aviation industry as a career. Firstly, it will streamline the process for military maintenance and service personnel to transfer to commercial aviation maintenance and servicing roles. Secondly, it aims to increase the intake of women to the industry by setting up a new Women in Aviation Advisory Committee. Currently, under 10% of qualified pilots are women, and under 3% are airline captains.


Advanced Technology


Aside from expected upgrades in the latest technology and software, the Bill implements future plans for the modernisation of airspace. This will include updated air traffic management and surveillance technologies, aiding and streamlining the roles of air traffic control officers. This will also cover innovative research into jet fuels, emissions, and energy research.


More importantly, after analysis by the New York Times suggested that the main cause for the 46 close-collisions of commercial aircraft in July 2023 was staff shortages, the Bill requires such advanced technology to enable traffic control officers to locate other aircraft more efficiently.


Staff Safety


Following hundreds of complaints to the FAA by airline staff about dangerous working conditions, the Bill places a major emphasis on employee safety. One specific provision is the introduction of 25-hour cockpit recording technologies, as opposed to the current FAA requirement to record two hours of audio from the cockpit. For pilots, it ensures a more transparent system, and provides support to both employees and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators should they need to establish any information surrounding an in-flight incident. NTSB has argued that in-flight audio is rarely provided to investigators and have therefore called for its implementation since 2018. However, the FAA had resisted citing its costs.



The FAA has referred 270 instances of airline passenger attacks against staff and fellow passengers to the FBI since 2021.

In terms of staff health, the Bill also establishes the Aeromedical Innovation and Modernization Working Group in order to evaluate the FAA’s approach and handling of mental health conditions. There has been a clear increase in disorderly passengers in recent years, with the FAA referring 270 of its most serious cases to the FBI since late 2021. Even after the FAA declared a zero-tolerance policy on unruly behaviour in 2021, it has now introduced enhanced self-defence training for crew-members and staff.

Always call a spade a spade.


What is missing from the Bill?


There is one crucial provision which the Bill, in its current form, leaves out. The draft legislation does not implement any change to the retirement age of pilots, leaving it stuck at 65. This is fairly controversial since airlines argue that raising the age from 65 to 67 would go some way in alleviating the current pilot shortage. In 2007, Congress raised the retirement age of pilots from 60 to 65, and airlines have been calling for it to be raised to 67 to allow experienced, physically fit pilots to continue earning, as well as addressing the shortfall of trained pilots.

 

Captain Dave Forbes, a member of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), is one of the most vocal advocates withing the pilot community for raising the mandatory retirement age. This puts him at odds with this union's position.


“It’s ageism to say that at 65 I will become one of the most dangerous people in the sky…If I were president of the ALPA, I would make sure there was science behind an age-based mandatory requirement,” Forbes told Forbes magazine.


Taylor Hulsey, spokesman for Rep. Troy Nehls, sponsor of an amendment to raise the retirement age has similarly argued, “to say that once you turn 65, you’re magically incapable of flying and become a risk is insane. Raising the pilot age will provide temporary relief for the massive pilot shortage that our country is facing.”

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