EVENT RECAP –– Hosted by POLITICO and presented by Southwest Airlines

On June 12, 2024, leaders in the civil aviation industry gathered for Flight Path: State of the Airline Industry. As several panelists mentioned, the industry is entering a challenging period. The Flight Path panelists discussed developments such as persistent infrastructure and staffing issues, quality concerns at Boeing, and the recently passed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2024 (“the reauthorization”). 

A Conversation with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)

Moderator: Anthony Adragna, Congressional Reporter @ POLITICO

Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovation, which has jurisdiction over civil aviation and relevant government agencies. Recently, Sen. Moran was one of four sponsors of the reauthorization, which aims to address the primary concerns of the civil aviation industry, including funding, air traffic control understaffing, and aircraft safety.

Sen. Moran emphasized that if unsafe practices dominate the civil aviation industry, the public will lose faith in the FAA, airlines, and aircraft manufacturers. Therefore, he believes the FAA must investigate incidents, determine what went wrong, and make suggestions for improvement.

Sen. Moran also addressed understaffing in air traffic control (ATC), another common concern. ATC is essential for safe airspace, but there is a nationwide shortage of approximately three thousand air traffic controllers. The reauthorization requires maximum hiring targets and improved staffing standards to close the gap. Additionally, Sen. Moran emphasized the role of technical schools and universities in developing the next generation of ATC professionals.

Sen. Moran believes that the reauthorization is a prime example of bipartisan leadership, with two Democrat and two Republican senators sponsoring the initial bill and strong bipartisan support. Sen. Moran shared that they set their political differences aside to achieve a shared goal, and he hopes future bills can be drafted with similar cooperation.

A Conversation with FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker

Moderator: Oriana Pawlyk, Aviation Reporter @ POLITICO

Michael Whitaker was unanimously confirmed as FAA Administrator by the Senate on October 24, 2023. At both his confirmation hearing and at Flight Path, he focused on safety, innovation, and staffing shortages in aviation.

Safety concerns at Boeing have impacted Mr. Whitaker’s tenure as FAA Administrator. Although he did not comment on specific Boeing factory practices, Mr. Whitaker was concerned that the company prioritized production over safety. Now, Mr. Whitaker is pleased with Boeing’s consistent emphasis on shifting culture in its mandated quality improvement plan. He also expressed willingness to collaborate with airlines on oversight, as some have begun monitoring Boeing independently.

Mr. Whitaker also discussed the ATC shortage and airport technology, common concerns regarding America’s aviation infrastructure. He praised the new ATC hiring efforts in the reauthorization, although he noted that their effects would not be visible for several years. Mr. Whitaker’s stance on technological innovations was cautious. When asked about aging airport equipment, he responded that the FAA was focused less on adopting new technologies and more on the consistency of existing technologies.

Executive Conversation Presented by Southwest

Bob Jordan, President & CEO of Southwest Airlines

Cally Baute, Executive Vice President & General Manager, Media Business @ POLITICO

Bob Jordan serves as the President, Chief Executive Officer, and Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors at Southwest. Mr. Jordan is a strong advocate for “The Southwest Way,” which describes the company’s mission of “democratizing the sky” through friendly, accessible, and reliable travel.

In line with this mission, Mr. Jordan emphasized Southwest’s customer-forward policies, including two free checked bags, no change fees, and credit with no expiration. He believes fees and policies should be common sense. In his own words, “If we sell you a ticket, doesn’t it make sense that we let you bring your clothes with you?” With this philosophy in mind, Mr. Jordan reminded the audience that Southwest “didn’t need regulation to do the right thing,” but supports new FAA regulations regarding fees and refunds.

Mr. Jordan believes that Southwest is entering a new era. After entering the industry, responding to September 11, and modernizing the airline experience (including Wi-Fi and larger overhead storage), Southwest has seen customer needs change and must adapt. He believes in continued FAA reauthorization, adequate staffing, and self-services via mobile app. He hopes that Southwest continues to lead in customer satisfaction as the industry evolves.

Panel Conversation

Erin Witte, Director of Consumer Protection, Consumer Federation of America

Rich Santa, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association

Hassan Shahidi, PhD, President & CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation

Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President of Legislative & Regulatory Policy Airlines for America

Moderator: Oriana Pawlyk, Aviation Reporter @ POLITICO

All four panelists agreed that the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024 constituted a step forward for U.S. air travel regarding key issues. Disagreements emerged over individual topics such as seat size and federal preemption. 

Ms. Witte argued that the reauthorization did not include adequate regulations to prevent shrinking seats. She believed such provisions would improve consumer experience and safety, as smaller seats could cause planes to be filled over capacity. She also argued that state attorneys general should share authority with the Department of Transportation (DoT). Ms. Pinkerton countered that previous FAA studies found that current airline seat sizes do not pose a safety risk. She also argued that giving states shared legal authority with the DoT would cause overcomplication for flights crossing interstate or international borders.

The panelists agreed that the maximum hiring targets for air traffic controllers were beneficial. Mr. Santa in particular praised them as a “game-changer.” He highlighted how understaffing exacerbated the already high-stress role of air traffic controllers. Dr Shahidi emphasized the need to integrate increased staff with new technology. He pushed for the adoption of surface awareness systems and was pleased with the funds allocated by the Biden administration for air tower and equipment improvements. Although they acknowledged the challenge and transitions ahead, the four panelists agreed that U.S. air travel remains safe and that the measures being implemented are sound.


Written by Grace Mower and Isaac Oh, Public Policy Interns

The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.