Murray Sounds Alarm Over Critical Shortage of FAA Safety Inspectors

May 04 2006

At Senate Hearing, Murray Says FAA Must Address Shortage of Safety Inspectors and Air Traffic Controllers and Must Better Manage Major Procurements

(Washington, D.C.) – Today at a Senate hearing with Federal Aviation Administrator Marion Blakey, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) raised concerns about the FAA's budget and the Bush Administration's leadership on aviation issues.

The hearing was held before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Transportation, Treasury, the Judiciary, and Housing and Urban Development, of which Senator Murray is the top Democrat.

Senator Murray's opening statement follows:

Importance of Commercial Aviation

Commercial aviation is a critical part of our national economy and our future. In 2004, the U.S. civil aviation sector generated $1.37 trillion of output, supported 12.3 million jobs, and created $418 billion in personal earnings. That represents almost 9 percent of overall employment in this country, and -- in my state – that percentage is even higher.

Having a strong aviation sector requires a strong FAA that guarantees safety for all users. The FAA must ensure the safety of every flight, of every airplane part, and of the system overall. That requires a well-trained and fully-staffed workforce of safety inspectors and air traffic controllers and modern equipment.

Bush Administration's Proposed Cuts

As I review the current status of the FAA and the agency's financial needs, I am sorry to say that this department deserves a much better budget. It also needs strong leadership and closer attention from this Congress.

The Bush Administration is seeking to cut the FAA by more than $560 million – almost 4 percent in direct appropriations. When you include all of the proposed funding rescissions in the President's budget, the cut rises to $937 million or 6.8 percent.

The biggest cut proposed by the Administration is a whopping three-quarter's of a billion dollar cut in capital investments in our nation's airports. We know that passenger boardings are expected to grow by 60 percent over the next 15 years. That means we should be investing more. But instead, the Bush Administration wants to cut our support for America's airports.

Mr. Chairman, thanks to your leadership, we have rejected cuts in airport capital investments in the past, but we have not been successful in fending off all cuts within the FAA's budget – such as cuts to modernize our outdate air-traffic control system.

Air Traffic Control Modernization

This year, the Bush Administration seeks to cut modernization by $50 million. That comes on top of much larger cuts in prior years. If we accept the President's level for air traffic control modernization, we will have cut modernization by $518 million or 17 percent in just the last five years.

I must confess to being enormously frustrated with the way this Administration has handled the FAA and its budget needs. My frustration stems in part from the Administration's effort to play a continuing game of "hide the ball" when it comes to the budgetary realities of this agency.

Conflicting Answers

For the last several months, I have been seeking very simple answers to some very simple questions. It was not until this Subcommittee actually scheduled hearings with the Transportation Secretary or the FAA Administrator that we have been able to get any answers. And then, the Secretary's answers have contradicted the Administrator's answers.

For example, I've been asking: Of the hundreds of air safety inspectors that are expected to retire this year, how many will the agency be able to hire to fill those vacancies? These safety inspectors represent some of the most critical air safety positions in the entire agency. We have received numerous reports from the Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office that we need more inspectors and better training because more domestic airlines are doing their aircraft maintenance oversees.

It is a sad fact of life that, at present, the FAA does not even have the manpower or ability to inspect some of the facilities that are conducting these maintenance activities. When I asked Secretary Mineta about this back on March 16th, he told me the Department was going to be in a position to hire the 238 safety inspectors that we called for in our appropriations bill. But just this past Friday, the Administrator told us to expect about 30 percent fewer inspectors to be hired. So with all the requirements placed on our flight safety inspectors, their number will still be well below the level the agency had back in 2003.

Similarly, for months I have been asking how many air traffic controllers the FAA will be able to hire to make up for the hundreds of controllers that are expected to retire this year. Here again, the Secretary gave me one number, and the Administrator gave me another. The Secretary told me he would be funding the 1,249 controllers that were called for last year while the Administrator is now telling me that we should only expect 930.

Inadequate Plan for Retirements

These disconnects highlight my concern that the Administration doesn't have a real plan for dealing with the looming retirement crisis both in the inspector and controller workforce. Back in December of 2004, the FAA released this multi-year controller staffing plan. At the time, the FAA assured us the plan would be renewed annually and updated for market conditions and actual retirements. We were assured this plan would not be ignored by OMB and would not grow dusty sitting on a shelf. We were told the Administration was committed to updating the plan every year and funding it.

Well, it is now May of 2006, the annual update for this plan was due more than six months ago, and we still don't have it. The absence of this plan cannot be blamed on the fact that the FAA and the controllers still do not have a contract. That shouldn't influence this plan.

To me, it is simply inexcusable that this critical safety plan is being ignored. The fact that the agency cannot afford to hire enough inspectors or controllers does not come as a complete surprise to me. There are a number of funding shortfalls that undermine the FAA's ability to hire enough staff.

A small part of the problem is that Congress approved a larger pay raise than the agency budgeted for. A much larger part of the problem is that, despite my efforts, and the efforts of several other Senators, the Congress imposed a one percent across-the-board cut on all agencies, including the FAA's operations account.

Across the Board Cuts

These across-the-board cuts have become an annual ritual. They occur because the Republican budget resolutions impose an unrealistic ceiling on agency funding. Last year was no different. Despite the fact that the Transportation, Treasury bill included enough funding to hire enough controllers and inspectors at the level called for by our Subcommittee, the Defense Appropriations bill then cut all accounts by one percent. With the large operating account that the FAA has, that one percent cut had a real impact.

I must commend the FAA Administrator for sounding the alarm on this possibility. She sent me and the other managers of this bill a letter expressing her worry about the potential impact of another across-the-board cut. I was sufficiently concerned that I took to the Senate Floor in December to warn my colleagues against imposing an across-the-board cut.

I specifically cited the potential impact of this cut on the FAA's ability to hire sufficient safety staff. In fact, I put Administrator Blakey's letter into the Record for all my colleagues to see. Unfortunately, my speech and the Administrator's letter were not sufficient to spare the FAA from this across-the-board cut. Now, we are seeing the results when it comes to critical safety staffing.

So Congress is part of the problem here, but not all of the problem. A large share of responsibility lies with the way the FAA has failed to manage major procurement projects.


The FAA has had a long history of wasting millions and sometimes billions of dollars on mismanaged procurements for which the taxpayer and the flying public have gotten very little or inadequate results.

Recently, we received an Inspector General's report indicating that this pattern still persists. The report made clear that the FAA's efforts to modernize its telecommunications infrastructure are way behind schedule and over budget. I will discuss this in greater detail later.

The IG found that if the FAA had managed these projects effectively, it would have saved $33 million last year in operating funds and more than $100 million this year. Those operating savings would have been more than enough to fully fund the FAA’s controller staffing plan and would have hired enough safety inspectors to get us back to the 2003 level. But because the FAA mismanaged these projects, it never enjoyed the savings, and its critical safety needs are now being shortchanged.

So in summary, Mr. Chairman, I believe this agency deserves a better budget, it deserves better leadership from the Secretary on down, it needs better management when it comes to these multi-million dollar procurements, and it needs better attention from this Congress. Only then will the flying public know that the system is truly safe. I look forward to working with you to try to achieve all of these objectives.