Madam President, I rise today in support of the bill that is before us—the FAA reauthorization legislation, which is currently on the Senate floor. I thank Senator Dorgan, the neighboring State to Minnesota, for his leadership on the committee and on the subcommittee. I am proud to be a member of that subcommittee and to have worked on this bill.
The air transportation system is important to all Americans and certainly to the people of my State. Minnesota is the childhood home of Charles Lindberg. Today, Minnesota is a major hub of Delta, which was previously Northwest Airlines. It flies people literally all over the world. We are also home to Cirrus Aircraft, which is one of the manufacturers of smaller planes up in Duluth. We have thousands of pilots and airline employees who fly each and every day, both for their enjoyment as well as for their livelihood.
As anyone who has recently flown on an airplane knows, our airport transportation system is strained and it is subject to increased congestion and delay. Recent notable incidents have, in fact, called into question the safety of our commercial aircraft as well as the training of a few of the pilots who fly them. We know, for the most part, that we have a very good air system, but we also know there must be improvements, especially if we are going to compete on a global basis with other countries that are working to update their air traffic systems.
As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Aviation and someone who has worked hard to bring this legislation to the floor of the Senate, I know this bill will address many of the concerns of people around our country.
First, this legislation incorporates important safety improvements. The tragedy of Colgan Air Flight No. 3407, which crashed outside of Buffalo in February of last year, brought the safety of our airlines back into the public eye and raised new questions about the safety of regional aircraft and the training and experience of the pilots who fly them.
We have had many hearings, thanks to Senator Dorgan, on this tragedy. Every single time there were families of people who were killed in that crash in the hearing room to remind us of the changes that need to be made.
Pilots for these regional carriers are, in some cases, not trained as well as for major carriers. They are overtired and underpaid. In fact, some regional pilots earn so little that they take second and sometimes third jobs. Many pilots live far away from their bases, leading to long commutes and even longer hours spent waiting in airports.
The facts surrounding the Buffalo crash bear this out. The first officer, who earned around $20,000 a year, flew to Newark on a red-eye flight on the day of the accident. She arrived at 6:30 a.m. and reports indicate she spent the entire day in the Newark airport sending text messages to her friends before her shift began. The evidence also suggests the pilot was up for large parts of the night before the flight. Once on the plane, the pilot and the first officer broke FAA policy by engaging in nonessential banter and conversation during critical times of the flight. And the flight data recorder indicated the crew was inexperienced, poorly trained, and ill-prepared for the tough weather conditions that night.
As the first officer told the pilot—and this is an exact quote—and I will never forget this because being from Minnesota, we have a lot of ice issues, and it is where, in fact, Senator Wellstone was killed in a crash, in part because of poor pilot training and icing issues. This is the quote of the first officer on that plane, before that plane went down in Buffalo:
"I've never seen icing conditions. I've never de-iced. I've never experienced any of that."
Imagine the chilling effect of those words on the families of those who died in that crash.
Many people in my State rely on regional jets to connect them to each other and to the world. As I have said before, a passenger should be as safe on a regional carrier going from Minneapolis to Duluth as they would be on a Boeing 767 flying from Los Angeles to New York.
This legislation will help us do just that. In particular, the bill will require the FAA to adopt new rules on pilot fatigue, rules that have not been updated since the 1950s. And the bill will boost pilot training requiring that the pilots meet certain standards before being allowed in the cockpit so we will not have to hear those words again, Senator Dorgan, "I've never seen icing conditions. I've never de-iced... I've never experienced any of that." In short, this legislation will help raise the safety standards for regional jets and pilots and ensure one level of safety for all commercial aircraft in this country. The thing I most remember is there is an argument, in fact, that regional flights are even more difficult than the big passenger planes. Why? They have to land and land and land, have shorter flights, and they actually are more tiring and they have a better chance of encountering difficult weather conditions, so we should have one level of safety for all commercial aircraft in this country.
Recent safety incidents have not only highlighted concerns with regional airlines but with major carriers as well. In 2008 we learned that some major carriers had kept flying aircraft in need of necessary repairs and that the FAA may have actually known about it. The disclosure of these safety lapses led to thousands of flight cancellations, and these safety lapses and cancellations raised questions about the FAA's ability to enforce our safety laws and regulations.
What we learned is troubling. The Department of Transportation's inspector general described an “overly collaborative relationship” between FAA management and the airlines they regulated.
To help recalibrate the balance between the FAA and the carriers, Senator Snowe and I introduced the Aviation Safety Enhancement Act to ensure that the FAA does more than just trust that the airlines comply with all Federal safety regulations. In particular, the legislation, which has been incorporated into the FAA reauthorization bill we are now considering, puts a stop to the so-called revolving door between the FAA and the carriers by requiring a cooling-off period for FAA inspectors before they can work for the airlines and interact with the FAA.
It also establishes a whistleblower office in the FAA and creates a roving “National Review Board” that will travel around to various FAA inspection offices to conduct safety reviews and unannounced audits. These unannounced safety audits are important.
I tend to straighten up my house a bit before I know my mother-in-law is coming over and that is why I know that if you have an unannounced visit, you might have a different result than an announced visit. These unannounced safety audits will be very important to make sure things are in order, that facilities are in order, and help ensure that the carriers remain focused on safety and that the FAA remains true to its mission, to protect the American flying public.
We also need to pass this FAA reauthorization bill because it would put a passenger bill of rights into law. The need for a passenger bill of rights was made clear to me and other Minnesotans last summer. Just ask Link Christin. On August 7, Link was aboard Continental Flight 2816, a flight from Houston Intercontinental Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul when it was redirected to the Rochester airport in Rochester, MN due to severe weather. It landed in Rochester around midnight and the passengers were not allowed off the plane until 6 a.m. the next day, midnight to 6 am. The passengers aboard the flight described the experience as a “nightmare,” saying they were not given any food or drinks during the time waiting, things smelled, there were babies on the plane. It is as if common sense had flown out the window, but the windows were not open. No passengers should have to go through what Link and the other passengers aboard Continental Flight 2816 went through—forced to remain on the tarmac for 6 hours without food, in an increasingly uncomfortable cabin atmosphere, and denied the opportunity to deplane when the airport was only yards away. The FAA reauthorization bill we are considering today helps ensure we don't have any more stories such as Link Christin's. I appreciate Secretary LaHood's leadership on this already, but we should be putting this into law.
In particular, the bill requires that airlines provide passengers with food, water, and adequate restrooms during a delay. The passenger bill of rights would also require airplanes to return to the gate once the plane has sat on the ground for 3 hours—or 3.5 hours if the pilot thinks the plane will take off before then.
Finally, this bill helps upgrade our air traffic control system to the next generation, the NextGen system of air traffic control technology. We have focused a lot lately on roads and bridges which I know, coming from Minnesota where the bridge fell down in the middle of a summer day, are critically important parts of our Nation's infrastructure, but our national aviation infrastructure is just as important. The current air traffic control technology, developed in the 1950s and used by the FAA today, is based on outdated technology that relies on ground-based radar systems, voice communications, and fragmented weather forecasts. With NextGen, a system that uses satellites rather than ground-based radar, both pilots and controllers will have the benefit of virtual maps, up-to-date weather reports, and other real-time information.
The result is a more efficient use of our airspace, safer skies, and less congested airports. That is something we should all be able to support.
In this bill we make sure that NextGen is a national priority by giving it the resources and the attention it needs to get the program up and running. The aviation system is too crucial a part of our Nation's infrastructure and too important to our Nation's economy to let the problems go unaddressed. This bill modernizes our air traffic control system, our air transport system, it puts in that passenger bill of rights, it does something about pilot safety and training, and all the things we know need to get done here. It helps to ensure that our system is in fact the safest in the world. We have waited too long to pass this bill. But now is the time when the rubber meets the runway. It is time to pass the FAA reauthorization and I urge my colleagues to support this bill.