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Thu, Jul 30, 2009

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt Gets Warm Reception From Oshkosh Crowd

Says He Will Work With TSA On Access Issues

By Tom Patton, ANN News Editor

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt made his first appearance at Oshkosh as Administrator Thursday, bestowing The Wright Master Pilot Award on EAA Founder Paul Poberezny, and taking questions from some of the several hundred pilots in the audience.

Paul And Audrey Poberezny

The Wright Master Pilot Award recognizes pilots with 50 or more years of flying, and Poberezny certainly qualifies. His wife Audrey received a special recognition pin at the ceremony.

Then it was down to the Administrators annual briefing, and question and answer session. Babbitt, himself a pilot and former Eastern Airlines captain, gave an almost glowing "state of the industry" report. Aviation accidents are down significantly, he said  and "not because people are flying less." The rate of fatal accidents is down 12 percent over last year, which Babbitt called a "significant improvement." Controlled flight into terrain is down by more than half, and weather-related accidents are down by about 40 percent.

Babbitt attributed many of the improvements to technology, things like glass cockpits, both OEM and retrofit, improving pilot's situational awareness. But, he added, flight hours are down, and fuel prices are partly to blame. "You can't stay sharp if you're not up there flying," he said.

Runway safety is also improved, he said, with incursions down 7 percent overall, and serious runway incursions are down more than 70 percent over last year. But there are still nearly 70 runway incursions per month, and "that's not an acceptable rate", he said. New, lower cost technology is also being developed to address the runway incursion issue.

He gave the LSA segment of the industry a good report card as well. The LSA Fleet is up to 8100 aircraft, he said, and reporting relatively few fatal accidents. The overall rates on LSA fatalities are on a par with the GA sector of the industry.

Finally, he talked about NextGen, and how it will benefit all segments of the aviation industry. Over 20,000 aircraft are equipped to take advantage of NextGen already, and LPV approaches are making airports more accessible than ever before. Babbitt said he hope to have horizontal and vertical guidance into 2000 more locations by the end of next year. Other technology will continue bringing traffic and weather information directly into the cockpit, so that the pilot can see exactly what the controller sees on an LCD display in the cockpit. Like transponders are now, Babbitt said ADS-B technology will be required for flight into certain airspace by 2020.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt

Then it was time for questions and answers. On a question about the apparent growth of restricted airspace encroaching on recreational flying, Babbitt said the advent of new technology should be able to shrink some of those restricted areas. A question was posed about "Through The Fence" access of people living on or very near airports, as well as the apparent crackdown on "Hanger Houses" in some regions. A deputy administrator gave a very unpopular, if accurate, answer about Federal land use rules and "case-by-case" disposal of "Through The Fence" access, and was in fact booed by some of the pilots in the audience. Babbitt smoothed things over somewhat by saying he would take a look at the issue.

On the question of fees, Babbitt said "When we take a look at the overall system, which is the best and most efficient in the world, someone has to pay the bills." There are taxes on cargo, passengers, and fuels, but with people flying less, and more efficient engines using less fuel, that takes a bite out of the budget needed to run the system. "At the end of the day," he said, "we have to find a way that everybody can pay their share to sustain the system we have."

A question was posed about the possibility of eliminating the third class medical. FAA's chief flight surgeon Fredrick Tilton said the agency declines only 0.1 percent of all medical applications, but that is in part because people who apply can generally pass the medical. "The first thing I worry about is safety," he said, "but we bend over backwards to get people in the air."

A question posed by ANN's Jim Campbell pointedly called out TSA as placing an undue burden on GA pilots trying to fly. "When will the FAA put its foot down," he asked. Babbitt drew a laugh then applause from the crowd when he answered "Would you like me to call the president and tell him I'm taking TSA back?" He went on to say that there was no permanent administrator for TSA, but that he expects that it will happen soon. "I have no counterpart at TSA," he said. "I intend to sit down and lay out the case, look at the facts and the areas where we can help them(TSA)." "We're going to work very hard to resolve this issue," he added. "So that if you do want to go fly, you won't be put off" because it's too much of a hassle.

Babbitt will be at Oshkosh until Friday, a place he seems to genuinely enjoy. "Where else can you tailgate under the wing of a 172 or an A380?" he said.

FMI: www.faa.gov

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