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Airlines refund additional costs, staff will fix faulty FAA system

Airlines have been pushing the FAA for years to modernize their air traffic control system. After this week’s crash, they’re pushing harder.

WASHINGTON. Last year, airline executives were outraged when government officials, led by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, accused carriers of canceling thousands of flights and mistreating customers.

The shoe is now on a different foot after a technological glitch at the Federal Aviation Administration that grounded planes for a while earlier this week, but airline executives are taking a different approach.

They avoided harsh words and settling scores. Instead, they are calling on Congress and the Biden administration to give the FAA more staff and more money to upgrade its systems.

“I know the FAA is doing their best with what they have, but we have to support the FAA,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said Friday.

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom praised the FAA for a “timeout” on Wednesday morning – temporarily banning planes from taking off across the country – while it fixed the system that provides safety and other information to pilots and airline controllers. He said it showed that safety is paramount.

“Investment is required,” Isom told CNBC. “It will be billions of dollars, and this is not something that is done overnight.”

The airline executives, of course, have an interest in the FAA being able to function. The agency manages the country’s airspace and hires air traffic controllers to fly passenger and cargo planes, small private jets, helicopters and drones.

Bastian said the FAA’s understaffing is leading to longer flight times and making it difficult to operate in congested parts of the Northeast and Florida.

“There is no question that investing in a modernized air traffic control system will lead to tremendous efficiency as well as growth, which will mean better service to the American public,” he told reporters.

Airline executives no doubt want to remain in the good graces of the bureaucrats who regulate them. Isom went out of his way to praise the leadership abilities of Buttigieg, who leads the FAA’s parent organization.

Airlines have been pushing the FAA for years to modernize their air traffic control system. They argue that faster and more complete deployment of the so-called NextGen plan to modernize the national airspace system will benefit travelers by making flights more efficient and reliable.

The FAA’s technology will certainly be a key issue this year as Congress considers a bill that will govern the agency for the next five years. But Capitol Hill’s initial response was to press Buttigieg for answers about this week’s debacle.

Late Friday, more than 120 members of Congress said in a letter to Buttigieg that “the FAA is well aware of the challenges facing the NOTAM system,” which failed this week. NOTAM stands for Air Assignment Notice.

The letter, signed by 71 Republicans and 51 Democrats, said that in 2018 Congress directed the FAA to upgrade the NOTAM system, and the FAA has requested money to replace the “legacy hardware” that powers it.

“Combined with this week’s setback, important questions are raised about how long these problems have been around and what is needed to prevent such problems from recurring,” the lawmakers said. “Again, this is completely unacceptable.”

Buttigieg’s office declined to comment on the letter, but the statement said the NOTAM system had been working properly since Wednesday, with no unusual delays or flight cancellations.

Among those who signed the letter were Rep. Sam Graves, Missouri, the new chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Rep. Rick Larsen, of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee.

Graves suggested earlier this week that the failure in the FAA’s alert system was due to “the number of empty desks and vacant offices at the FAA,” including the absence of a full-time administrator since the latter was fired in March 2021.

Graves did not comment on the level of FAA funding.

Larsen said in an interview earlier this week that he is optimistic that Democrats and Republicans can put partisan differences aside and help the FAA improve its technology.

“This was a serious infraction for people traveling and they didn’t deserve it,” he said.

From the Senate side at the Capitol, Maria Cantwell, Washington, said the committee on commerce, which she chairs, would look into the failure. She also vowed to deal with airline outages similar to what happened at Southwest last month.

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