FAA Controversy Sort of Gets a Hearing

What if you threw a birthday party for a set of triplets and only invited one of them showed up? That’s what Congressman Peter DeFazio is doing tomorrow with a hearing on the controversy over aviation, the 5G C-Band, and the regulation of spectrum use by federal agencies.

A sensible approach to this issue would begin with panel of federal agency heads from the FAA, the FCC, and NTIA (the executive branch spectrum watchdog.) But only FAA head Steve Dickson and FCC chief Jessica Rosenworcel were invited and the latter couldn’t come. [note: these two paragraphs edited]

The second panel would include representatives of commercial aviation, general aviation, the mobile communications industry, and the public interest. Instead, it consists of six people representing aviation interests, a single witness from the wireless industry, and a consultant with loose ties to the FCC through his former leadership of the Technological Advisory Council.

This looks more like a Joe Rogan podcast than a Congressional hearing.

What the [Dickens] is Going on Here?

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson has been the most silent man in America since declaring an air travel emergency in November after two years of ignoring the C-Band auction. He’ll be able to tell whatever story he wants without contradiction by the federal government’s spectrum experts.

The six witnesses representing aviation interests in the second panel will also be able to misrepresent the work of the FCC and NTIA with limited rebuttal from CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker and consultant Dennis Roberson.

The core of the problem is unrealistic assumptions on the part of aviation regarding the strength of the 5G signals radio altimeters contend with in today’s world. As the FAA has finally begun testing real altimeters against real 5G signals, it has approved 90% of the air fleet for operation around 5G C-Band transmitters.

It’s not 100% simply because the FAA didn’t begin testing until after it had declared a crisis. In other words, this is an issue manufactured by a government agency dragging its feet on the creation of a legitimate risk model.

Low Expectations

My expectations for the hearing are obviously low. The unbalanced witness list suggests that lame duck Chairman DeFazio has a bone to pick with the communications industry.

Not only is DeFazio a strong supporter of anti-innovation net neutrality regulations, his legislative history leans heavily towards the “precautionary principle” approach to technology regulation. DeFazio is strongly in favor of organic farming, opposed to advanced biotech plants (“GMOs”), opposed to the WTO, and historically opposed to carbon-free nuclear energy.

He has been a supporter of the advanced NuScale small modular nuclear reactors made in his district, so DeFazio has become a somewhat pragmatic safety hawk. There’s also bit of tension between the chairman and aviation at the moment over the question of vaccine and mask mandates for airline crews and travelers.

Aviation Arrogance

To his credit, DeFazio has been very clear about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines. In one dramatic recent hearing, he was heard calling an anti-vaccine colleague some colorful names in a hot mic and describing anti-vaccine constituents in less than flattering terms:

“We’ve got a lot of whacked-out people in this country that are killing people, plain and simple,” DeFazio said. “In three counties in the southern part of my district – deep red counties – vaccine rates of 40%, people have died waiting to get into the ICU.”

DeFazio later recognized [Don] Young for the second time before the Alaska Republican again yielded his time to [Brian] Mast, allowing the Florida Republican to continue the debate on his amendments.

“Oh, you f—ing a——,” he said after Young yielded.

Some aviation interests – pilots and flight attendants – oppose safety mandates because they don’t want to enforce federal rules. Aviation is an industry that puts its own interests ahead of all others, but it often lacks the knowledge to determine where its interests actually lie.

FAA’s Science and Technology Shortcomings

The FAA has made a lot of progress in its ability to assess the 5G mid-band since its end-of-the-year freak-out. Since beginning to seriously study altimeter vulnerabilities in January, it has determined that 90% of the US commercial air fleet can safely operate after mid-band transmitters are enabled around airports. The other ten percent has yet to be tested.

The FCC and NTIA determined all of this two years ago.

I hope committee members hold Dickson’s feet to the fire. It would not be unreasonable for Transportation Secretary Buttigieg to ask for his resignation if he can’t make a very compelling case for his agency’s poor performance on this issue.

It goes without saying that US regulatory performance on the 5G mid-band and aviation is well below the international standard. Dickson was a poor choice when the former president appointed him, and he hasn’t grown into the job. A balanced hearing would show this.