Today on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, joins Candy Crowley to discuss the surge of near-collisions between drones and commercial aircraft, the FAA’s new “highways in the sky” program, and the busiest travel days of the year.
On unmanned aircrafts: “Unmanned aircraft has both great potential as a use for things like surveillance of power lines and so forth, but we care about first and foremost maintaining a safe aviation system. So how we integrate them into our national airspace system is done with safety as our paramount concern.”
On the surge of near-collisions between drones & commercial aircraft: “That is certainly a serious concern. And it is something that I am concerned about. That’s why we are very focused on education. That’s why we’re also focused on enforcement. We have enforced hundreds of these cases, where we have seen someone operating one of these things carelessly and recklessly and posing a danger to aircraft, and that can’t happen.”
On handling air traffic & the NextGen program: “Every year for holidays, the Defense Department releases a lot of airspace to us. And that enables us to actually plan different highways in the sky. Also, over the last year, we have been making a lot of investments in making the existing highways much more efficient. And that’s a big thing, because this program, our NextGen air traffic control program, enables us to have much more efficient arrivals and departures at busy airports. Here in Washington, we just rolled out some new procedures that, collectively, will save airlines about 2.5 million gallons of fuel a year.”
Full transcript is available after the jump.
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CROWLEY: With me now, Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration. I know you’re working on regulations for these unmanned drones, but can you describe to me your perception of the threat at this point to commercial airliners?
MICHAEL HUERTA, ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION: Well, unmanned aircraft has both great potential as a use for things like surveillance of power lines and so forth, but we care about first and foremost maintaining a safe aviation system.
So how we integrate them into our national airspace system is done with safety as our paramount concern.
CROWLEY: But, right now, their — the regulations, supposedly, you should not be flying one of these higher than 400 feet, et cetera, et cetera.
CROWLEY: Go ahead.
You should not fly them any higher than 400 feet. You should not be anywhere near an airport. And you need to maintain line of sight if you’re using them for personal uses. And a big part of what we need to do is educate people on what the rules are.
There are rules, there are laws that govern how we fly things within our national airspace system, and this technology is evolving and the regulations are evolving with it.
CROWLEY: So, you know, those are the rules and regulations, and yet we have increasing reports by — the FAA says, look, we’re getting about 25 a month that pilots are seeing, commercial and private pilots are seeing, at heights far above 400, 1,000 feet, 2,000 feet.
CROWLEY: This drone that we have, one of the most popular Christmas gifts this year.
CROWLEY: So, what is the threat to an airliner? Because, again, we saw geese…
CROWLEY: … force Sully Sullenberger to land that plane in the Hudson…
CROWLEY: … because that’s how damaging geese were. How damaging is one of these?
HUERTA: Well, the thing that we are most concerned about is to ensure that any aircraft in this system do not come into conflict with one another, they don’t crash into one another. And…
CROWLEY: But you can’t see these.
HUERTA: Well, these are very high-performance aircraft, and they are difficult to see. And this is one of the big challenges. And so that’s why the rules require that people stay away from airports.
Now, we have been working with the Model Aeronautics Association, with the modeling community, with clubs, so that we can educate people, because these are not your typical pilots that may be flying one of these for the first time. And they may be unfamiliar with the rules.
And so a big part of what we’re doing is educating people on those issues.
CROWLEY: But can you afford to wait? Is, like, educating people — I mean, we’re still educating people about how to drive a car and how to — and, meanwhile, you have a lot of amateurs who love to put a camera on something and fly it up there.
I’m trying to get a sense of your sense of the danger should one of these get sucked into the engine or hit a prop plane and a propeller. That — that’s serious.
HUERTA: That is certainly a serious concern. And it is something that I am concerned about.
That’s why we are very focused on education. That’s why we’re also focused on enforcement. We have enforced hundreds of these cases, where we have seen someone operating one of these things carelessly and recklessly and posing a danger to aircraft, and that can’t happen.
CROWLEY: Some of the criticism has been that a 2012 law said, we got to get regulations for this. You were tasked with that, and commercial folks can’t fly them right now.
They want to use them for delivering packages and looking at crops over, you know, thousands of acres, and they can’t do that, and they say the delay is making this more dangerous, because you got a bunch of amateurs out there, you know, flying wherever they want.
HUERTA: Well, that actually illustrates the balance that we have to achieve.
Yes, there are proponents of unmanned aircraft, and they really see huge potential of this technology. And, for them, we can’t move fast enough. What they would like to see is free and open use of unmanned aircraft as soon as we can get there. On the other side, you have pilots, commercial pilots, general aviation pilots, who are very concerned that these are difficult to see, they don’t really have a good understanding of how they interact with other aircraft. And a bedrock principle of aviation is a principle called see and avoid. The pilots take action to avoid one another.
And so it’s for that reason that we have a plan for a staged and thoughtful integration of unmanned aircraft, where we look at lower- risk uses first, and then gradually work to others.
CROWLEY: Before we get to air travel today, because I do want to ask you about that…
CROWLEY: … on your busiest day…
CROWLEY: … look, you can’t help but look at these drones and think, suppose a terrorist wanted to do some real damage. At this point, it’s a possibility, it’s a feasibility. What are you doing in that — on that score? Does that enter into your thinking?
HUERTA: Well, security is always a concern.
And one of the things that — we’re going to be publishing a rule-making later on this year that really looks at the qualifications of the operator, the certification of the aircraft, and really…
CROWLEY: This is the one that will require a pilot license for drone operation?
HUERTA: Well, I can’t say what is going to be in it, but, broadly speaking, what we are looking at are all the questions relating to how we certify the aircraft and what are the qualifications of the operator, as well as what uses they can be put to.
Let me ask you about today. You wake up this morning, you’re the head of the FAA, and you know it is the busiest travel day of the year, because everybody may not go to Thanksgiving at the same time, but they sure do come home pretty much at the same time.
HUERTA: Yes, they do.
CROWLEY: What is your biggest — what’s on your mind the most on this day? I know the generality is get everybody home safe, but what do you worry about most?
HUERTA: Well, the big thing that always creates a lot of uncertainty in the system is weather. Fortunately, we have a very good weather day today. It should be great flying conditions throughout the whole country.
A little bit of rain in the San Francisco Bay area, but they need the rain in San Francisco, so that’s probably a good thing. We’re expecting a little over 46,000 flights today, and at very high loads. And so what that means is, airplanes will be crowded. Get to the airport on time because you are going to have crowds that you’re going to have to get past for security, checking your bag and all of that. But it should be a good day.
CROWLEY: And in your — when you say 46,000 flights, how many at the same time? Like, what do we — when we see that and are going to show to our audience the…
CROWLEY: … what the air traffic looks like, at one — at any given time, how many planes have you got in the air, commercial?
HUERTA: Well, it will build throughout the day.
And a typical — this is — the load you’re going to see today is about 15 percent higher than you would see on a typical Sunday, so the patterns are going to be a little bit different, but first thing in the morning, you will see a lot of flights, late in the day, as a lot of people want to spend as much time as they can with their family and friends.
But it will be a very, very busy day. But, you know, I think that as long as everyone gets to the airport on time, and as long as we are working closely with the airlines, which we are, to ensure that we’re well-coordinated, everyone should get there on time.
CROWLEY: And we should say to handle that traffic, you do have some new highways, as they say.
HUERTA: Well, there’s a couple of things.
Every year for holidays, the Defense Department releases a lot of airspace to us. And that enables us to actually plan different highways in the sky. Also, over the last year, we have been making a lot of investments in making the existing highways much more efficient.
And that’s a big thing, because this program, our NextGen air traffic control program, enables us to have much more efficient arrivals and departures at busy airports. Here in Washington, we just rolled out some new procedures that, collectively, will save airlines about 2.5 million gallons of fuel a year.
CROWLEY: Oh, so the prices for tickets probably will likely go down, right?
HUERTA: Well, they will certainly be more efficient, but — and the airlines are always looking to reduce their costs.
CROWLEY: Yes. Yes. I’m always looking for them to reduce my costs, actually.
CROWLEY: So, well, Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Administration — Federal Aviation Administration, thank you for dropping by.
This is the guy that wants to get you home safely.
HUERTA: Thank you very much.
CROWLEY: So, thanks.