Republicans on the House Aviation Committee used a hearing intended to address air travel safety concerns to pepper FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker with accusations of “illegal foreign nationals” sleeping at airports, to complain about work from home rules, and to drop a reference to Taylor Swift‘s “supersonic jet.”
As Mr Whitaker admitted to the lawmakers, the past year has seen an uptick of aviation safety incidents. The most notable was the 5 January incident during which a door blew off an Alaska AirBoeing 737 MAX 9, but there have been several “near miss” incidents between landing planes and concerns that there are too few pilots and too few air traffic controllers to maintain safe air operations.
The hearing took place just hours before the NTSB released its preliminary report detailing what went wrong on that Alaska Air flight.
While the majority of the House Aviation Committee seemed intent on engaging Mr Whitaker on safety issues and demanding that Boeing be held accountable, a few members used the opportunity to peddle Fox News’ latest headlines back at the official and to air their various, tenuously connected grievances.
Republican Scott Perry of Pennsylvania used his time to demand answers about “illegal foreign nationals” being housed at airports. He cited FAA regulations stating that airports would not be used for non-aeronautical functions, and asked if Mr Whitaker was aware of any airports that had filed requests allowing migrants temporary housing.
Mr Whitaker said he was aware of “one” but noted that exceptions could be made to the non-aeronautical use rules on a request-by-request basis.
“The FAA does approve requests for community use, whatever the category, and there’s a huge number of categories for community use,” Mr Whitaker said. “Our criteria is whether or not it interrupts aeronautical uses or is otherwise disruptive.”
In late January, Fox News ran a series of stories alleging that secret rooms were being used in airports to temporarily house migrants.
Later in the hearing, Texas Republican Troy Nehls was pushing back on a letter sent by the FAA to Congress opposing raising the retirement age of pilots from 65 to 67. The letter asked for more data on the potential impacts of such a change before it would consider raising the retirement age.
Mr Nehls said that the Air Line Pilots Association union — which opposes raising the age limit — was accepting dues from Canadian pilots who were over the age of 65, and insisted that constituted a “live study” that could justify raising the age of retirement.
He said that older Canadian pilots were using the same runways as American pilots, and bizarrely claimed that “Taylor Swift, flying to the Super Bowl in her supersonic jet” was among them.
Committee chairman Garrett Graves noted after Mr Nehl’s time expired that he did not believe Swift was in possession of a supersonic jet.
Mr Nehls also complained that the FAA allows some of its staff to work primarily from home, requiring only four in-office days per two weeks. He asked if air traffic controllers only working in office two days a week would cause issues for the airline.
Mr Whitaker appeared confused by the question, explaining that air traffic controllers cannot work from home, but Mr Nehls insisted in his line of questioning until he agreed that air traffic controllers could not work from home.
Congressman Jefferson Van Drew railed against “globalisation,” the “green economy” and suggested that quality assurance issues with Boeing were being hidden by its “social conditioning” through the use of DEI initiatives.
“Boeing has hidden its decline, in my opinion, by appealing to diversity, equity, and inclusion for its investors, because it’s a ‘cool thing to be.’ ... This is a one-two punch of globalisation and social engineering, it doesn’t belong, job number one is safety,” he said. “[Boeing] is a company that is struggling to produce safe aircraft.”
When he wasn’t fielding questions about immigration and “social conditioning,” Mr Whitaker was discussing what the FAA is doing to ensure that entities like Boeing are actually held accountable and how the agency will prevent future incidents.
He told the committee that the FAA is “filling every seat” at its air traffic control training school in Oklahoma City, and that the agency has begun training more candidates at aeronautical colleges around the country.
Mr Whitaker said the FAA’s intention was to “duplicate” the training that air traffic control candidates receive at Oklahoma City at the colleges, and that the agency was moving to equip those schools with training tools like flight and control tower simulators.
The FAA has also moved inspectors into Boeing manufacuturing facilities to oversee its quality assurance methods and to provide avenues for communication between the agency and Boeing’s employees.
When asked if the FAA had provided means for whistleblowers in Boeing or other air manufacuturers to report incidents, Mr Whitaker said it had and that it had been in contact with manufacturing employees.
The committee expressed an overall frustration that the FAA Authorisation Bill passed by the House is still being held up in the Senate. Mr Graves noted that the bill includes provisions addressing all of safety concerns voiced by Congress, and that those concerns could be addressed if the bill is passed.
If passed, the bill will authorise the FAA through 2028.