Acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration Billy Nolen pleaded to Congress Wednesday that budget cuts proposed by some House Republicans would “jeopardize our work to usher in the next era of aviation.”
The House narrowly passed sweeping legislation Wednesday that would raise the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion for steep spending restrictions that would impact funding for government agencies.
It’s an about-face from last year when many agencies like the FAA saw budget increases.
Nolen said Biden’s proposed budget request of $19.8 billion for the next fiscal year, in addition to the $5 billion the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides to reduce the backlog of airport and air traffic projects, “is critical to maintaining the agency’s safety record.
“When we think about the kind of cuts that might be either anticipated or put forth, we are talking about having to furlough all FAA employees for up to 22 days,” Nolen said at the hearing. “We are talking about the potential reduction in force of up to 10%, which is in excess of 4,000 FAA employees. It means immediate cuts in all of these critical systems.”
Nolen specifically noted that budget cuts would mean suspending new air traffic controller training and closing 375 towers, which means two-thirds of the national airspace would be without air traffic control services, said Nolen, who will be stepping down this summer after serving more than a year in the role.
“So this path we are on to getting more controllers out there to meet the demand that is back faster than ever,” Nolen said.
In March, the FAA said the agency is continuing to reduce the air traffic controller training backlog at many FAA air traffic facilities, but warned that staffing levels in certain areas, specifically at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control, continue to be below targets.
The FAA said Wednesday that the budget seeks $117 million to increase the hiring of air traffic controllers and to reduce the controller training backlog that was created during the pandemic.
Nolen said the FAA plan’s to hire 1,800 trainees in fiscal year 2024, which is up from the 1,500 trainees it’s hiring this fiscal year.
However, “funding to hire and train air traffic controllers is only part of the equation,” Nolen said. The funds would be used to strengthen safety oversight in several areas.
“This is not hyperbole: The budget cuts that have been considered by some would be raw, they would be deep, and they would be impactful to the flying public,” he said. “Cuts will slow modernization of old systems, hobble our effort to train more controllers, and jeopardize our work to usher in the next era of aviation.”
The bill passed by a razor-thin 217-215 margin. However, it has almost no chance of passing the Democratic Senate. Biden has also threatened to veto the Republican package.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.