As Congress gears up to craft a new five-year funding package for the Federal Aviation Administration, a House panel Wednesday held a hearing focused on boosting the pilot pipeline to meet growing passenger demand.
The reauthorization of the FAA legislation is one of the big-ticket transportation items facing Congress this year. The legislation provides funding for the FAA and is considered a legislative vehicle for all aviation-related policies, including pilot training and workforce development, which was the focus of the Wednesday hearing before the House Transportation & Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation.
The current bill, enacted in 2018, expires at the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year. Industry advocates hope for another five-year bill to avoid the repeated extensions that occurred after the 2012 authorization.
“I think it’s very fitting that we kick off our series — first series — of hearings that we’ve had with safety, because it underpins our entire aviation system,” said House Transportation & Infrastructure Chair Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo.
After the pandemic drove a steep decline in air travel in 2020, passenger demand this year is on track to exceed 2019 levels for the first time. Over the next 20 years, passenger enplanements are projected to grow 4.9% annually, according to the Government Accountability Office, though GAO director Heather Krause told lawmakers that those projects are sometimes overestimated. That growth compares with a projected 16% growth in pilots over the same period, said Graves.
“It’s safe to say…we’ve got a problem moving forward,” Graves said.
Regional airports and airlines take the brunt of the pilot shortage, said Faye Malarkey Black, president and chief executive officer, Regional Airline Association.
“The impact has been felt by 308 airports, or almost 72% of all U.S. airports,” Black said. “These airports have, on average, lost one quarter of their flights, with smaller airports experiencing a disproportionate impact. Over the next 15 years, nearly 50 percent of the commercial airline workforce will be forced to retire because they will reach the age of 65.”
The current FAA bill authorized just under $97 billion for the nation’s airports through fiscal 2023, according to the National Association of Counties.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $25 billion for aviation over five years, including $15 billion for airport infrastructure projects, $5 billion to replace airport terminals and $5 billion to modernize air traffic facilities.
The hearing comes as the FAA continues to lack an administrator after longtime transit issuer Phil Washington, who is CEO of Denver International Airport, pulled his name from consideration as President Biden’s nominee amid pushback from Republican senators who said Washington lacked sufficient experience.