McDermott & Bull (MB): Please share your thoughts on the overall state of affairs in aviation and aerospace, both domestically and abroad?

Michael Huerta (MH): I remind our team regularly that aviation is at a pivotal, perhaps critical point. The primary factors include:

  1.  Technology and the deployment of new technology. How can the industry manage risk in a period of rapid acceleration via the development of new technology? The industry and the FAA face real challenges effectively evaluating and deploying new technology at an appropriate pace for the unforgiving flight environment.
  2.  Retirement across the industry. The pilot population is facing retirement challenges. The same can be said for air traffic controllers, so many of whom were hired in the early 80’s. This retirement reality is creating great pressure on the system to hire and train replacements.
  3. The nature of the business itself. There has been huge consolidation across the industry. And the market dynamics have changed dramatically. There are all sorts of options that weren’t there just a few years ago.
  4. Redefinition of what the industry actually is. Today, we have the traditional sectors, Commercial and General Aviation, plus two new sectors, Commercial Space Travel and Drones. The result has been a dramatic expansion in the number of players and interest groups.

What does this mean for the FAA? To keep pace with the development, the FAA has had to speed up the pace at which it makes decisions. At the same time, we have to be extremely careful and recognize that many of our decisions today will impact the industry for 50 years or more.

For example, the Part 107 UAV integration effort is so important. We can’t just let it evolve. We have to think five steps ahead. The challenges and the opportunities are enormous – managing the clash of new and old cultures; safety focus vs. new commerce and its attendant focus on getting to market fast; the tech world’s beta-tester culture vs. the “safety first” imperative of our airspace system. We need to figure out how to merge these areas and find the right balance.

Of course, it isn’t all rosy and wonderful. General Aviation continues to face significant challenges. And the business jet segment is facing issues that started ten years ago and are now coming to a head.

It is so important to think clearly about the future as well as about “what was.” Instead of thinking about “making room” for UAVs, we must think differently about integration. And while, for example, some in the rotorcraft industry see unmanned aircraft as a threat, others see an opportunity to operate in a new segment of the business.

MB: How is the United States ATC modernization effort going? What positive, and perhaps challenging, changes will we see over the next 3-5 years, in addition to ADS-B out requirements and the great new weather products via ADS-B in? Can you share any data points on stakeholder feedback so far?

MH: For those tasked with looking at this closely, there is a lot happening. We are working closely with the industry through an advisory committee, this year chaired by FedEx President and COO Dave Bronczek.  We have worked to move from the original “science project” approach to a “benefits-based approach.” We are very metrics-driven around four key performance improvement priorities:

Multiple runway operations
Performance-based navigation
Surface-based operations
Data communications

Every year, we evaluate how we are doing and adjust as needed. For example, based on feedback in 2015, we moved to aggressively speed-up the data communications rollout plan from the 50 largest airports in three years to the top 53 in one year.

This technology allows rapid digital broadcast of detailed reroute instructions due to weather and other factors to dozens of aircraft taxiing for takeoff at the largest fields. It has dramatically improved efficiency at these airports, eliminating communications and “fat finger” data input errors while freeing up frequencies for other communication.

We plan to deploy Data Comm in our En Route Centers. While the efficiency is harder to achieve, the benefits to the process of large-scale rerouting are substantial.  Airlines need to see hard data to ensure that investments in, for example, onboard NEXRAD will actually pay off.

Our challenges with performance-based navigation are less about technology and more about noise concerns, a much bigger issue for people today than back in the 70’s. The technology today allows precise routing, but the noise is a concern for those directly under these routes. The conversations are about how to “share the pain.”

MB: Much has been said over the years about ATC privatization – the concerns and potential benefits. Can you share any interesting new thoughts you are hearing and/or have on the subject?

MH: Different industry segments have different perspectives on the problem. One segment sees the threat of government shutdowns, stop-gap extensions, and the effects on operating budgets slowing down modernization efforts. Others have very valid concerns about access to the system.

As a country, we need to decide what we want. The historical approach has been to maintain a certain level of access for everyone. I agree that budget showdowns are a big problem and that there is certainly a need for more flexibility to adjust along the way. I believe the right structure will flow from addressing these questions and making some decisions as a country.

Long term, we need to address the evolving demands on the system. The current financial model is not sustainable.

MB: Can you share your thoughts on the new European approach to aircraft certification? Are there any lessons to be learned from the effort so far that we might implement here in the US?

MH: Today, European and US regulators work together very closely to ensure consistency and transferability, helping all stakeholders to better manage development and other costs, coordinate timing of announcements, and so on.

MB: How is the Part 23 rewrite impacting the industry so far? What do you expect we will see in the years to come as a result of this effort?

MH: The industry has been a great help to us in this process. We have moved together from a prescriptive approach to one based on performance, which we all believe will stimulate innovation. At the FAA, we are excited and energized by the effort. We are training our staff as quickly as possible to be ready for the new approach.

And Part 23 is not a one-off change. It represents the start of a comprehensive innovative approach – a shift from an “Is this how I would build it?” way of thinking to a “Does the applicant have a reasonable basis for the approach?” analysis. What we learn here will be applied to all classes of aircraft in the years to come.

A similar approach will be applied to overhauling rules addressing the operating environment. We will move away from a “one-size-fits-all” checklist-based approach to a data-driven analysis of the environment and assessing risk, prioritizing our approach accordingly.

MB: Is the FAA ready to support the new 3rd Class Medical standards? Any other thoughts on this change?

MH: Our team here at the FAA has worked very hard with everyone involved to be ready. It really has been a great partnership with the General Aviation community.  So far, so good!

MB: There is great excitement and, of course, legitimate trepidation about the rapidly-developing unmanned aircraft marketplace. What interesting new developments are happening from your unique, well-informed perspective?

MH: Someone asked me recently, “What does it feel like to be part of this moment, at the birth of a whole new industry?” I guess I see this as part of aviation’s continuing evolution. But, the truth is, we are now seeing the democratization of the airspace. Unmanned aircraft bring a much larger community to aviation, creating a huge opportunity to welcome new folks and work together in interesting new ways.

MB: There is much talk about a major capital investment effort in the country’s infrastructure over the next couple of years. Do you have any insight you can share on how that investment might impact the nation’s airport infrastructure?

MH: The President has talked about our aging infrastructure. His administration’s view is very broad. There are lots of areas of need, as well as a real interest in public/private partnerships. Flexibility will be required. Conversations are taking place on a very large scale and the FAA has a seat at the table.

MB: Is there anything else on your mind that you think Aviation, Aerospace and UAS industry leaders might like to hear that we haven’t covered yet?

MH: I think a lot about how divided the industry is today. We all have to think more about the future instead of the past and we all need to be open to new possibilities. I believe all stakeholders have learned a great deal. I am definitely an optimist. You must be to do the job. I see so much potential and I keep stressing with our workforce that we don’t have all the answers…that we have to try new things and be open to continuous learning. We all must be ready to adapt.

MB: You are widely regarded has having been a capable, steady hand on the tiller at the FAA. Care to share your thoughts on what may come next for Michael Huerta?

MH: I am really excited about what we are doing today at the FAA and I love the industry. I am completely focused on helping tackle the issues and challenges we face.