FAA launches safety review as acting chief faces lawmakers over recent problems

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(WASHINGTON) — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration is facing lawmaker questions on Wednesday, just one day after the agency vowed to form a safety team to review its aviation system after a recent series of dangerous, close calls.

The Senate hearing was scheduled in the wake of the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) computer system failure on Jan. 11 — which led to the first nationwide ground stop since the Sept. 11 attacks.

But just as it was scheduled to begin, the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced Wednesday they’re investigating the fourth serious airline incident in recent months.

The latest close call involved a United Boeing 777 and a Cessna in Honolulu that came within 1,170 feet from each other when the 777 crossed the same runway where the Cessna was landing.

Acting Administrator Billy Nolen, ahead of his testimony on Wednesday, wrote in a memo that a new safety review team will look at the U.S. aerospace system’s structure, culture, systems, and integration of safety efforts.

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“We are experiencing the safest period in aviation history, but we cannot take this for granted,” Nolen said in the memo. “Recent events remind us that we must not become complacent. Now is the time to stare into the data and ask hard questions.”

Inside the hearing room, Ranking Member Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the issues at the FAA are “emblematic of a culture afraid to innovate, stuck operating inefficiently — and illustrative of why President Biden needs to choose an administrator for the FAA with a proven ability to manage change within large organizations and with the requisite aviation and safety experience.”

The FAA continues to operate without a Senate-confirmed director. Biden nominated Phil Washington, the chief executive of Denver International Airport, last July, but he hasn’t received a confirmation vote.

“There must be accountability when an agency is not using taxpayer funds efficiently. And that of course step starts with an accountable leader,” Cruz continued. “Now in his third year as Secretary of Transportation Secretary Buttigieg has failed to deliver any meaningful reform at the FAA.”

Nolen, in his opening statement, said he agreed with Cruz that the FAA needs a Senate-confirmed leader to keep the U.S. competitive as that confirmation is stalled.

“Recent events remind us that we cannot become complacent and that we must continually invest in our aviation system,” Nolen said.

Directly addressing the NOTAM computer system failure last month, Nolen said the FAA has “found no evidence of a cyber attack or other malicious intent.”

“Contract personnel unintentionally deleted files while working to correct synchronization issues,” he explained.

“We all know that complacency has no place in their transportation, whether it’s on the flight deck in the control tower, the ramp or the dispatch center,” Nolen said. “We’re confident that we are taking the right steps here and we look forward to working with the committee and this Congress in developing a long-term FAA reauthorization bill that accelerates the next era of aviation — one that is safe, efficient, sustainable and open to all.”

The hearing comes after there have been at least two other near collisions at U.S. airports in the last month, in addition to a United Airlines plane briefly plummeting after leaving Maui in December.

At Kennedy International Airport on Jan. 13, a Delta Airlines plane almost collided with an American Airlines flight that appeared to be on the wrong runway, prompting the Delta pilot to slam the brakes.

And in Austin on Feb. 5, a FedEx cargo plane came within 100 feet of a Southwest passenger flight. Both incidents are being investigated by the FAA and NTSB.

“You’ve got to remember that 32,000 flights a day occur over the U.S. and almost nothing ever goes wrong. Air safety is built on our being intolerant of any mistake without understanding what we can do to make it not happen again,” said John Nance, a former commercial pilot and ABC News contributor.

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