In the wake of several high profile “close calls” and increased scrutiny from Congress, acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen has issued a safety “call to action” memorandum for the FAA.  The memorandum acknowledges that we are still experiencing the “safest period in aviation history” but notes that this cannot be taken for granted, and states that “now is the time to stare into the dark and ask hard questions.” 

The memorandum identifies several key objectives and action items.  First, the FAA will form a new safety review team to “examine the U.S. aerospace system’s structure, culture, processes, systems and integration of safety efforts.”  The goal of the group is to determine whether the regulatory structure is not only fit for its current purpose, but also that it will meet future needs. 

This work will begin with a “Safety Summit” in March which will be attended by “a group of commercial and general aviation leaders, labor partners, and others” who will examine “which mitigations are working and why others appear to be not as effective as they once were.”

In addition to this initiative, the Commercial Aviation Safety Team is instructed to take a “fresh look” at Aviation Safety Information Analysis data to determine if there are other incidents that mirror those that have happened in the last few months to see if there are emerging trends that should be addressed.

Finally, a “review team” will focus on the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) and assess their internal processes, systems and operational integration.  The team will make recommendations to shore up ATO’s safety culture.  The group is also tasked with strengthening the connection between ATO and the FAA Aviation Safety organization. 

In addition to the call to action, acting Administrator Nolen testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation yesterday.  In his opening remarks, acting Administrator Nolen provided an update on the NOTAM issue, reiterating that a mistake made by contractors working on the database caused the incident.  He also called on Congress to provide the funding and support necessary to fully implement the modernization of the National Airspace System (NAS). 

The most dramatic moment of the hearing came when Senator Ted Cruz showed a video recreation of the near miss in Dallas as a lead-in to questions about why the incident occurred.  Acting Administrator Nolen indicated that they did not have an answer to that question yet, but fully supported the NTSB’s ongoing investigation. 

Overall, the questioning by the Senators was pointed, but not overly confrontational.  A number of Senators asked for assurances that, if the FAA’s appropriations request was fully funded, the FAA would be able to meet its timelines for enhancement to the NAS and upgrades to its systems.  Acting Administrator Nolen gave those assurances, hopefully opening the door to a successful FAA Reauthorization process.