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Thune Calls on Democrat Leaders to Stop Obstructing FAA Reauthorization

“If the Democrat leader would loosen his hold and stop trying to engineer the legislative outcome he wants, we could get another bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill out of committee and to the Senate floor for a vote.”

September 20, 2023

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today spoke on the Senate floor about the urgent need to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and pass his and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (I-Ariz.) amendment that would enhance aviation safety. Thune noted that Senate Democrat leadership has put the FAA reauthorization in jeopardy by preventing the Senate Commerce Committee from advancing this critical legislation.  

Thune’s remarks below (as prepared for delivery):

Mr. President, on Monday the Democrat leader came down to the floor to discuss the continuing resolution the House proposed.

“And he criticized it for, among other things, making, quote, ‘[n]o attempt to reauthorize the FAA.’

“Making ‘no attempt to reauthorize the FAA.’

“Mr. President, apparently it’s slipped the Democrat leader’s mind that the Senate is currently making no attempt to reauthorize the FAA either.

“That’s right.

“It’s been 97 days since the Democrat chair of the Commerce Committee halted consideration of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization at the beginning of the scheduled markup because the Democrat leader objected to a bipartisan amendment Senator Sinema and I planned to offer.

“An amendment to improve aviation safety by implementing a structured, rigorous training program for prospective airline pilots.

“Mr. President, current training requirements for airline pilots require 1,500 hours of flight time, primarily in the cockpit – although military pilots and those with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in aviation can receive credit for some of those hours. 

“I recognize the value of cockpit experience and see time in real aircraft as an essential part of training airline pilots.

“But those 1,500 hours alone are not always the ideal preparation for flying commercial jets or training truly well-rounded pilots.

“For starters, the majority of the 1,500 hours are generally completed in small, single-engine aircraft, which have very little relevance to regional or large jetliners in terms of flight characteristics and instrumentation.

“Little to none of the currently required flight hours – which aspiring airline pilots must seek out and complete on their own – are accumulated in the type of aircraft that these pilots will be flying should they get a job with an airline.

“In fact, current rules would theoretically allow some of those hours to be completed in a hot air balloon – not exactly preparation for flying a 787 across the ocean.

“Mr. President, to address these deficiencies and better prepare pilots for airline jobs, seven years ago the Air Carrier Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee – a body of industry, labor, and safety representatives who meet regularly under the auspices of the FAA’s Office of Aviation Safety – developed and recommended the implementation of an Enhanced Qualification Program that would create a structured pathway for pilots to obtain intensive training.

“That is exactly the type of program that our amendment would create.

“Following the recommendations of the Air Carrier Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee, our amendment would implement a two-month Enhanced Qualification Program, designed and audited by the FAA and administered by air carriers, that would give aspiring airline pilots intensive training both in the classroom and in simulators with experienced air carrier pilots and other experts.

“Individuals who successfully completed the program would be given a 250-hour credit toward their restricted airline transport pilot license – similar to the credits currently given for undergraduate work in aviation.

“Mr. President, the Enhanced Qualification Program in our amendment would significantly improve pilot training – and passenger safety.

“As I said, intensive training in the kind of air carrier environment where prospective airline pilots will be flying is something that is largely missing from current training.

“And getting the chance to work closely with seasoned pilots would help turn out highly qualified pilots who are better prepared for flying commercial jets.

“In addition, our program’s use of simulator training – whose proven value has resulted in its extensive use by the military – would give prospective airline pilots exposure to the cockpits of the jets they would be flying and, crucially, allow them to experience what it’s like to handle challenging and dangerous situations in those cockpits.

“For obvious reasons, standard flight training hours don’t involve deliberately flying into perilous weather conditions or dealing with things like fires or engine failure.

“But simulator training offers prospective airline pilots the chance to deal with all those situations, and more – and deal with them again and again until their response to these situations is fine-tuned.

“And you don’t have to take my word for it.

“A bipartisan group of former FAA administrators and former presidents of the Air Line Pilots Association recently sent a letter to the chairs and vice-chairs of the relevant House and Senate committees wholeheartedly endorsing the kind of simulator training our amendment would provide.

“Let me just read a little bit from that letter:

“‘[F]acilitating the adoption of new technologies that enhance safety should be a bedrock principle for government and industry alike. … Since the tragic crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 almost 15 years ago, there have been significant advances in technology that are incorporated into a pilot’s training upon an airline hiring them, but these technologies have not improved the 1,500-hour path to becoming an airline pilot.

“‘Modern, state-of-the-art flight simulators accurately recreate the experience of flight operations in a fully immersive experience, forcing pilots to encounter aircraft malfunctions, including rare events like rapid decompressions, emergency descents, high-speed rejected takeoffs, dual engine failures, severe icing conditions, flight control malfunctions and full stalls, all without placing any lives in danger. … 

“‘Simulators also present the opportunity to incorporate actual accident and incident scenarios into training. … Like training for an athletic endeavor, a high volume of repetitions of high-quality exercises improves performance and ‘muscle memory.’  Requiring the repeated practice of the prevention of and recovery from myriad real-world accident scenarios in full-motion flight simulators will make better pilots.’

“As I said, Mr. President, that is from a letter sent to the relevant committee chairs and vice-chairs by a bipartisan group of former FAA administrators and Air Line Pilots Association presidents.

“A letter that clearly demonstrates the value of the kind of program Senator Sinema’s and my amendment would establish for improving pilot training and passenger safety.

“Mr. President, I suspect if put to a vote in the Commerce Committee – or on the Senate floor – there’s a good chance that our amendment would pass – which is presumably why the Democrat leader is blocking any chance for a vote.

“It’s less clear why the leader is opposed to the substance of our legislation.

“Does he really think we can’t improve upon 1,500 hours of training largely undertaken in a single-engine prop plane? 

“That’s not exactly the ideal preparation for flying a commercial jet.

“A program that better prepares prospective airline pilots for the planes they will actually be flying seems like a no-brainer.

“But, regardless, the Democrat leader has every right to oppose our amendment.

“What is inappropriate is not his opposition, but the fact that he is using his position as majority leader to block committee debate on this amendment – which has had the practical effect of blocking the entire bill.

“The Commerce Committee and the Senate as a whole are set up for debate and amendment.

“They’re not set up with the intention of having a single individual determine legislative outcomes.

“When I was chairman of the Commerce Committee, bipartisan debate and amendment was the order of the day – and it helped produce a lot of strong pieces of legislation, including the longest reauthorization of the FAA since 1982.

“And if the Democrat leader would loosen his hold and stop trying to engineer the legislative outcome he wants, we could get another bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor.

“As the leader correctly indicated, the FAA reauthorization is an important piece of legislation.

“So, Mr. President, I encourage him to allow it to proceed through the committee and come to the floor for a vote.

“Mr. President, I yield the floor.”