Huerta on Senate Hot Seat over Tower Closures, 787 Fix

Lawmakers grill Huerta on range of issues.

Boeing 787 ANA

Boeing 787 ANA

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta faced tough questions on Capitol Hill Tuesday as he was asked to give lawmakers an update on how the agency is handling sequestration budget cuts as well as its progress with the ongoing review of Boeing's attempts to return the 787 Dreamliner to service.

Sequestration cuts have reduced the FAA's operating budget by about $637 million, forcing Huerta to issue furloughs for the agency's 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers, and to announce closures of 149 contract control towers. At a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation aviation safety hearing, Huerta said air travelers should expect significant delays because of the budget cuts' impacts.

“If sequestration means fewer flights can be safely accommodated, then there will be fewer flights,” he said.

The FAA has delayed a decision on tower closures until June 15 after facing lawsuits from airports that are scheduled to lose them. The House and Senate have since stepped in with bills aimed at preventing the closures. Furloughs of controllers slated to begin on April 21, meanwhile, are still scheduled to go into effect on schedule, with Huerta warning that resulting delays of 90 minutes or more for many airline flights could be the norm.

Senators also grilled Huerta on progress of the Boeing 787's lithium-ion battery system redesign, which has grounded the entire Dreamliner fleet since January. The FAA last month approved Boeing's certification plan for the 787's battery system redesign. Huerta said Boeing has completed all required testing and the agency expects to decide "very soon" whether to approve the redesigned battery system.