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Fri, Jun 22, 2012

Huerta Faces First Senate Confirmation Test

Hearing Held Thursday Before The Senate Commerce Committee

Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta (pictured) had his first session with the United States Senate Thursday in the process that could lead to his confirmation and the removal of "Acting" from his title.

In his opening statement released on the committee website, Chairman John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-WV) outlined his expectation for the potential FAA Administrator.

"If confirmed, you will be charged with leading the most complex aviation system in the world and an agency that faces several critical challenges," Rockefeller said. "Chief among these tasks is making sure the agency takes the steps necessary to maintain the highest levels of safety in the aviation industry. Although the aviation sector is enjoying one of its safest periods in history, we have experienced some troubling incidents over the past few years. The agency has already made substantial progress implementing the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. Among other accomplishments, the FAA has issued new pilot fatigue rules and moved forward on the use of Safety Management Systems. As the new Administrator, I expect that you make sure the industry continues to embrace a strong culture of safety.

Rockefeller said the next Administrator will also have to execute the mandates of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. "Aside from safety, modernizing the air transportation system remains the most important challenge. The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) will make our aviation system safer, more efficient, and strengthen the airline sector’s ability to help drive economic growth," the chairman said. "It is encouraging that the FAA has been able to move forward on some key components of NextGen, including satellite-based navigation (ADS-B) capabilities in the Caribbean, and the development of more precise landing and take-off procedures (RNAV and RNP) at airports across the nation. Much of this progress has been achieved under your direction, Mr. Huerta, so I have high expectations that you will continue this positive trend."

Business Week reports that Huerta was "peppered" with questions about the high volume of substantiated whistle-blower complaints lodged against the agency, and delays in the implementation of safety rules. Responding to a question from the committee's ranking Republican, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) (pictured, right) about the whistle-blower complaints, Huerta said “That has done a lot to create an environment and a quick response.”

Senator Rockefeller (pictured, left) was not particularly enamoured of the answer Huerta gave in response to a question about airline pilot training regulations. Huerta said the FAA is doing all it can to speed up the regulation process, but Rockefeller said "That is not an answer at all."

Democrats are generally in favor of Huerta's confirmation, but because an FAA administrator's term is not the same as that of the President, he could wind up leading the agency into the term of a President Mitt Romney, should he be elected in the fall. Analysts say that may lead Republicans to attempt to block the confirmation.

FMI: http://commerce.senate.gov, www.faa.gov

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