New US Federal Aviation Administration administrator Randy Babbitt echoes all his recent predecessors in calling safety his "number one priority". But Babbitt, now in his third month of a five-year term, is not a typical administrator.

A pilot and former head of the US Airline Pilots Association, Babbitt has a unique perspective that should help the FAA address the numerous issues facing the pilot community and resolve a longstanding dispute with its controllers' union. At the end of July he received a warm reception at AirVenture 2009 in Oshkosh, where he spent three days promising pilots he would tackle issues relating to airport access, alternative fuels, TSA choke points and future FAA funding.

Babbitt believes the FAA needs to find a new vehicle for funding its air traffic control system, but user fees, which private pilot groups vehemently oppose, is not the only option.

"We have a system that is totally reliant on taxing fuel, passenger tickets or cargo waybills. If the economy is down, everything I just made drops. Add to it people flying less and fuel getting less expensive - all of that really deteriorates the revenue for the FAA and air traffic system," Babbitt says. "I think we all acknowledge we will have to do something a little different. I don't know if user fees are the answer but I do think we have to find ways we can fund our system with reliability. Maybe that means looking at a greater percentage of funding from the general treasury."

Randy Babbitt in WhiteKnight Two
 © FAA
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt took the opportunity to tour Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo during his visit to Oshkosh at the end of last month

Babbitt is also considering providing piston aircraft owners "credits" for help funding the installation of ADS-B, which he sees as a crucial part of the FAA's NextGen project. "To have a fully robust NextGen system the utopia is for everyone to have ADS-B. Equipage is an issue. How you achieve it I think is a larger political issue. I think the country will have to say: 'Look if we have all these airplanes - both general aviation and commercial - with this, what will the savings be?' Then I think the question becomes 'can we afford not to do this?'" he says, pointing out that almost 4 billion litres of fuel a year, worth $6 billion, can be saved with NextGen.

Babbitt says the FAA also has "a whole team looking at alternative fuels" to replace 100 low lead, which powers nearly all US general aviation aircraft. The priority is a solution that "is compatible with the storage facilities that we have and the delivery systems that we have", but engine modifications or a "transition kit" for the existing fleet are likely to be required.

With the FAA, the industry and academia all working on potential alternative fuels, Babbitt is confident the FAA will be able to decide on a solution "within a year or two. We have a lot of green initiatives in the country. The president has made it a clear priority. We're part of that priority."

Babbitt says general aviation overall is "pretty healthy" despite the economy and the light sport aircraft (LSA) industry, which was born in 2005 after the FAA established a new category for aircraft under 600kg (1,320lb), is especially thriving. "Remarkably, the market and sales of light sport aircraft haven't dipped as much as the economy or traditional manufacturers," he says.

He says despite an NTSB recommendation for tougher LSA standards the self-certification system now in place is adequate and the LSA accident rate is "very compatible with what's going on in the rest of the general aviation world". Safety of regional airlines is a more pressing topic following the fatal crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 in February.

Babbitt says the FAA has since taken several steps to enhance regional airline safety and believes a bill to be debated by Congress in September aimed at improving regional airline safety "is not necessary".

"Many of the things they are looking to address have already been addressed," Babbitt says, pointing out the FAA is already proposing new rules governing pilot training and rest. He says regional airlines have also responded positively to his request that they all participate in voluntary safety reporting schemes such as Flight Operations Quality Assurance and the Aviation Safety Action Programme.

Congress is also proposing increasing the minimum number of flight time required for first officers to 1,500h but, says Babbitt: "In the pilot community I think it is acknowledged that simply raising the total amount of time by over half is not really a good benchmark for how good the quality of the pilot is. The quality of training is far more important than the quantity of training or total time."

As if he did not have enough on his plate, Babbitt is also tasked with forging a new contract with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which has had a bitter relationship with the FAA since 2006, when the agency imposed the current contract on the union. Babbitt says "we have closed out the vast majority of open articles" on a new contract and the FAA has agreed to let an arbitrator take over if a final agreement cannot be reached. "We'll get a result one way or the other," he says. "I want to bring a new era of labour stability to the FAA. We're very close to getting a consensual agreement with controllers."

Source: Flight International