Wichita is the kind of place President Obama had in mind in his State of the Union address when he said the country must build business and double its exports in the next five years, a top Federal Aviation Administration official said Thursday.
"Aviation can do an awful lot... to lead the way" in the economy, said Federal Aviation Administration deputy administrator Michael Huerta.
Huerta was in Wichita at the invitation of Cessna Aircraft CEO Jack Pelton. After a tour of the factory, Huerta addressed aviation officials in a town hall meeting.
"It's good to be here at home plate of the general aviation field," Huerta said.
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The FAA faces some big issues, he said.
One is reauthorization of funding for the FAA. Funding has been temporarily extended 17 times, Huerta said. The latest extension expires March 31.
Congress is considering rolling back funding to 2008 levels. The cut would make it difficult to keep the momentum going to transform the air space system, he said.
The Next Generation Air Transportation System is "big, it's complicated, and it's expensive," Huerta said.
The change transforms the country's current radar-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based one using GPS-based technology.
The FAA is a safety and regulatory agency, he said. And its focus on safety is paying off. General aviation fatal accidents have decreased steadily over the past decade. Last year, fatalities were down 26 percent over 2003.
Accidents caused by controlled flight into terrain is down nearly two-thirds over 2003 levels because of improved avionics.
"Better cockpits really do make better pilots," Huerta said.
One town hall meeting attendee from Cessna told Huerta that one of the things that slows the company in getting products to market is the long time it takes to go through the FAA's certification process.
Huerta said that the question for the FAA is whether it has the members it needs to provide the level of support that's needed and the funding to make sure they're in place.
"It's hard for us to plan as long as we're in all these (funding) extensions," Huerta said after the meeting.
He also was asked about the FAA's strategy on incorporating unmanned vehicle systems into the air traffic control system.
They're viewed as an "inevitable player" in the airspace, Huerta said.
They now are permitted to fly only by special permission.
The concern is operating them in civilian airspace and having the safety regulations in place, he said.
Huerta said Obama understands the importance of the aviation industry and what it contributes.
"It's not really about corporate executives," he said.
Instead it's about getting packages delivered.
And it's about "delivering medical equipment and parts and ferrying critically ill patients," Huerta said.