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SAFETY & SECURITY Last modified on October 27, 2013

The last word - Michael Huerta

FAA Administrator, Michael Huerta, talks to Joe Bates about leadership, budgets, safety and the development of the US airport system.

Name: Michael Huerta

Age: 56

Job Title: Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration

Nationality: American

Years in Aviation Industry: 25 years

Best Known for: His transportation expertise and business acumen

Little Known Fact: He enjoys National Standard Race skiing with his son


What does it feel like to be the leader of an organisation with responsibility for an airport system of nearly 20,000 airports and an annual budget of close to $16 billion?

In one word – honoured. Our airports — commercial service to general aviation — are not only vital to the nation’s air transportation system, they are a vital part of our basic transportation system moving business people, connecting families, and transporting goods. The challenges of maintaining this system are immense. As you know, some airports are capacity strained and others have not realised their capacity. We are working with airport operators and sponsors to build new airport capacity to meet increased demand through strengthened regional and metropolitan airport system planning and development.

What kind of leader do you have to be – a top businessman, salesman or politician?

In order to be an effective leader of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the administrator has to have a combination of all three traits. He or she has to be a good businessman to effectively oversee an organisation of more than 48,000 employees and a $15 billion budget. In a tough budget climate it helps to have some salesmanship skills to communicate the importance of maintaining investments in critical programmes like NextGen, that will not only modernise our airspace, but will create jobs and keep the United States competitive in a global economy.

The job also requires some political skills, balancing the sometimes conflicting needs of lawmakers, the industry and the general public. But most of all, the position requires discipline and vigilance to carry out our mission and maintain the safest transportation system in the world.


What do you consider to be the main opportunities and challenges ahead for the US airport system?

Safety is our top priority, and the FAA continues to work with airports of all sizes to ensure that we continue to identify and mitigate safety risks, wherever possible. We continue to see increased concentration of passenger growth among the nation’s busiest airports, and that creates one of our biggest challenges. In addition, smaller airports are seeing a decline in activity, so we must find ways to help decrease their financial difficulties. Finding new and innovative ways to enhance the economic and environmental sustainability of airports of all sizes is both our challenge and opportunity.


How many new runways have been built across the US in the last decade?

Since 2000, 24 major airfield projects have been completed at the airports to enhance airport capacity and efficiency. This includes 16 new runways, 3 major runway extensions, 3 major taxiways, and two substantial airfield reconfigurations. One of the airfield reconfigurations is complete and one is two-thirds complete. Additionally, in the last five years, two replacement airports for non-hub primary airports opened, and a military airfield was converted to civil use, replacing a non-primary commercial service airport.

Has this been enough to cope with demand?

The 24 airfield projects completed since 2000 have provided those airports with the potential to accommodate more than 2 million additional annual operations. This has helped, but there are still some locations that are capacity-constrained and delay-prone. We are continuing to work with those airport authorities to help ease delays. While new airfield infrastructure can substantially enhance capacity, new NextGen technology can also help increase operational efficiency and reduce delays in some locations.

Based on traffic forecasts, how many more terminals, runways and possible airports will be needed over the next 20 years?

Operations at large-hub airports are projected to grow by 1.6% annually over the next 20 years. The large-hub airports, which handle about 70% of US passengers, have identified significant development needs to improve efficiency, capacity, and provide adequate passenger terminal facilities. To meet increased demand, the FAA is providing grants for the construction of two runway extensions at Fort Lauderdale, and John F Kennedy airports; the completion of two airfield reconfiguration programmes at Chicago O’Hare and Philadelphia airports; and the possible addition of three new runways beyond 2020 at Charlotte, Denver, and Washington Dulles airports. No major new airports are proposed in the foreseeable future.

ACI-NA has called for the introduction of a US aviation policy that provides more “flexible, adequate funding sources for infrastructure improvements”. What is your response?

The FAA fully agrees with the need for flexible, adequate capital funding sources. For the last three years, the FAA has proposed increases in the PFC limit, along with structural changes to AIP that would help ensure the highest priority projects can be implemented in a timely manner. At the same time, the users of the system also have to support the infrastructure necessary to support the operations. AIP and PFC have always been a crucial part of the overall capital funding portfolio, but they’ve never been the sole solution. Many US airports are moving toward more effective and flexible use and lease arrangements with the airlines, and we support that trend. The FAA is also beginning a process to review the existing US airport rates and charges policy.

On the subject of flexibility, does it still take an average of 10 years to build a new runway in the US?

If you measure from the first planning meeting until a new runway is commissioned and operational, 10 years is a reasonable historical average. However, many airport sponsors have significantly improved on that time-frame, by developing and making available long-term plans so neighbouring communities can plan and develop in a way that anticipates future airport development. Some other best practices include early consideration of environmental issues; concurrent environmental reviews by federal and state agencies; dedicated resources to support the necessary work; and a formal process for resolving issues among the FAA and environmental resource agencies. Since 2001, the FAA has been actively engaged on a number of fronts to reduce the timeline necessary to conduct an environmental impact statement while still complying with federal and state environmental laws and regulations. Will the recent privatisation of San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport prove the catalyst for change to the US airport business model? Congress established the FAA’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program to explore privatisation as a means of generating access to various sources of private capital for airport improvement and development projects. The ownership structure of airports in the United States is a local issue, and each airport sponsor has to determine whether that option meets their needs.

What is the latest news on NextGen?

The FAA continues to deliver benefits as we implement NextGen, which is transforming our national airspace. The integration of satellite based technology, collaborative communications, and innovative procedures will reduce delays, fuel, and carbon emissions and ensure that we maintain the safest aviation system in the world.

Airports across the country are benefiting from NextGen technologies and procedures that improve surface operations. The Airport Surface Detection Equipment — Model X (ASDE-X) is being used at 38 US airports to track the movement of aircraft and vehicles on runways and taxiways. ASDE-X improves situational awareness and makes runways safer. We are improving communications between air traffic controllers and pilots using data communications. Controllers are currently testing Data Comm tower departure clearances at Memphis and Newark International Airports. Data Comm will help reduce errors and increase efficiency.

With NextGen, more precise departure and arrival paths will optimise routing and operations, especially for congested metropolitan areas. Increased use of Performance Based Navigation, or PBN, will give aircraft more freedom in the sky to choose more direct and fuel-efficient routes. PBN offers efficiencies for both domestic flights and international flights. In Seattle, as part of our Greener Skies initiative, airlines are using precision routes to shave four to eight minutes off flight times, saving millions of dollars per year. PBN also is saving the customer time allowing airlines to get aircraft off of runways more quickly. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the busiest in the world, can clear an additional 10 planes per hour using PBN.

Finally, the FAA’s new deputy administrator, Michael Whitaker, will serve as the FAA’s chief NextGen officer. In this role, he will be responsible for fostering the transformation of our national airspace.

Do you have a favourite airport and why?

I don’t have a favourite, but there is a general aviation airport that has a special place in my heart, since it helped foster my passion for aviation. It is Flabob Airport in Riverside, CA, where I would go to watch planes after school. As a young adult, I had a newspaper route and the people always wondered why their newspapers were delivered late. They were late because I stopped at the airport to watch planes take off and land before I delivered the newspapers.

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