FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, whose last official day in office is Jan. 6, has a word of advice for his yet-to-be-named successor: Don’t step into this job thinking you have all the answers.
“No one, without coming here can possibly appreciate the sheer scale and scope of the activities that the FAA’s involved in on a daily basis,” he told AOPA President and CEO Mark Baker in a recent conversation. “Even as long as I’ve been here, I am continually amazed at what our team is thinking about, working on, or what the industry is presenting as a challenge and opportunity and something that they would like to work on together with us.”
The resolution, noting Huerta’s leadership of programs that have resulted in the safest period in general aviation’s history, and a refocused FAA Compliance Philosophy that emphasizes education and enhanced safety “rather than punitive enforcement measures,” marked the first time since AOPA’s founding in 1939 that the association had recognized an FAA administrator’s service in that manner, Baker said.
Huerta said he “didn’t know a whole lot about general aviation” when he came to the agency. He came to learn that the sector accounts for “half our controlled operations” and “huge numbers of pilots, and it is something that is uniquely American, and that is what makes it so special.” GA reflects American values of freedom and mobility, Huerta added, noting that it was important for his agency to recognize that the sector “is where a lot of innovation takes place.”
Huerta cited the “absolutely critical” role of joint industry/agency efforts in the reduction of fatal accidents, adding that from education to new cockpit technologies, the industry and the agency must persevere.
“It’s still not perfect, there is still more that we need to do and so we’ve got to stay focused on what we can do to always make the system safer,” he said.
Baker credited the FAA under Huerta’s leadership with acting on its stated resolve to breathe new life into a GA aircraft fleet that averages 45 years old by making it easier to upgrade those “really good airplanes” with safety-enhancing—but non-technical standard order—equipment.
Huerta said the agency had come to realize that under its certification procedures, the FAA was “looking for a level of perfection in bringing new technology in that was greatly driving up the cost of the deployment there.” A better solution was to balance the benefits of a new technology against its costs.
“If it’s so expensive, then the technology isn’t going to be worth anything because no one will be able to afford to buy it,” he said, noting that any financial incentive to upgrade an aircraft with a new system should still provide a high standard of reliability.
Baker noted that the change was having a beneficial effect, generating activity among manufacturers who were “selling and building a lot of products” for the older fleet.
Huerta commented on his outlook on the pilot population in the coming years, noting that the work of AOPA and other organizations to “take aviation outside of the bubble toward people that might not think of developing a passion for aviation or developing a career in aviation is extremely important.”
The unmanned aircraft industry represents a related opportunity he said, because it appeals to “a whole universe of people that are very different from our traditional pilots.”
He noted the importance of efforts to incorporate aviation into education—which includes the AOPA You Can Fly program’s high school initiative that is testing a ninth-grade high school curriculum in 29 schools with a large-scale rollout planned later—to “light that spark” in students who may have regarded aviation as inaccessible as a career path.
Huerta recalled speaking at a two-year college that operates with a philosophy of giving its students the ability to experience the full scope of aviation careers, “but to leave the place with no debt,” making it possible, he said, for more people to join “this great industry.”
Baker expressed appreciation for the FAA’s response to Congress’s mandate to address medical reform with action that resulted in May 2017 in the rollout of the BasicMed program—a reform long awaited by GA pilots and vigorously advocated by AOPA. BasicMed allows many pilots to fly basic aircraft recreationally without having a third class medical certificate, and more than 25,000 pilots have returned to flying since the program took effect.
Huerta, who described BasicMed as a great partnership, said a significant plus about the program from his agency’s point of view was the incentive BasicMed provides “for pilots to take care of themselves,” and see a doctor on a regular basis. (BasicMed requires a pilot to be examined by a state-licensed physician every four years).
“It took us longer than we wanted to, but at the end of the day I think we got a very good result, and I think the industry will be better off as a result,” Huerta said.
Baker cited little-known statistics indicating that FAA enforcement actions are down 58 percent and administrative actions down 80 percent, appearing to reflect a “kinder and gentler” FAA enforcement philosophy. Huerta responded that rather than rack up as many enforcement cases as possible—a costly and time-consuming process—the FAA has refocused on working to bring those whose noncompliance cases arose from inadvertent actions, or were based on confusion or an “honest mistake,” into compliance as quickly as possible.
In 2017 AOPA launched an energetic campaign to confront unfair fees charged by some fixed-base operators. Baker credited the FAA under Huerta with asserting itself on the issue with the recent publication of guidance to FBOs on pricing practices. Huerta noted that the publication was intended to clarify existing policy rather than reframe it, reminding airport sponsors that they always have a responsibility to ensure public access, even if an airport’s sponsor (such as a municipality) has delegated FBO services to a private-sector operator.
Seven years ago, Huerta said, programs of the NextGen air traffic control modernization effort were “way over cost and behind schedule” early in their deployment. An overall review was commissioned, and the agency has “hit all of our targets since then.” All major ATC facilities in the en route environment are operating with controllers using “new technology platforms,” he said, adding that the upgrade of terminal ATC facilities was closely following. He noted that progress achieved in those areas, and the expansion of the Data Comm program that supplements pilot-controller voice communications with text messages, and other initiatives, came despite multiple government shutdowns, automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, and “stop-and-start on our authorizations and appropriations.”
Weighing in on political efforts to remove the ATC organization from the FAA and place it under the control of an outside entity, Huerta seemed to tamp down that notion, stating that the problem that be believes needs solving “really isn’t being talked about” in current efforts to “privatize” ATC.
“What we’re not talking about is what are the challenges that we have, what is the FAA being asked to do, and how do we pay for it,” he said, stressing his view that discussions of the agency’s future should produce—not follow—strategies affecting its makeup.
As for his own future, Huerta, who turned 61 in November, observed that his departure from the agency coincides with the beginning of skiing season in the Rocky Mountains. He said he hoped to remain close to the aviation industry, perhaps “putting together a few projects” before too long, and added that he would enjoy teaching—but that his post-FAA planning was “still very much a work in progress.”