The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee kicked off its first hearing of the 118th Congress on Feb. 9 with a focus on strengthening airline operations by upgrading the sector’s IT systems and technology.

Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Thursday’s hearing was the first of many meetings to come on the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – upcoming legislation that will fund and give authorities to the agency for a five-year span.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee took their first swing at the reauthorization bill earlier this week, putting a heavy emphasis on the FAA’s need to upgrade and modernize its IT systems.

The Senate panel took a different approach. While still highlighting the impact of FAA’s system outage last month, the committee members also focused on the Southwest Airlines debacle in December that left thousands of fliers stranded due to bad weather exacerbated by a breakdown of technology.

“When winter storm Elliott hit, U.S. travelers experienced an airline debacle of enormous proportions,” Sen. Cantwell explained. “Many airlines recovered quickly, [but] Southwest stood out on its scope on the problems it faced. Over two million Southwest passengers suffered consequences.”

In late December, the commercial airline canceled more than half of its flights and left thousands stranded over a three-day period due to winter storms and a failure of outdated systems.

“We need to make sure we’re investing in technology,” Sen. Cantwell said. “What we want is to have a system that is ready to address [serious weather events].”

The Senate panel called on executives and pilots from Southwest to testify – including Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson, who dodged complaints about his company’s catastrophic meltdown from both sides of the aisle.

Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said frontline workers had been “sounding the alarm” about outdated technology, and asserted that the commercial airline leadership had been ignoring them.

“For years, there were warnings for the need to modernize the IT system that was dated,” Sen. Cantwell said. “This incident shows us that we have to get serious about this.”

The Senate committee is now using this incident as an opportunity to conduct more oversight on commercial airlines – wrapping it into the 2023 FAA Reauthorization Bill that will need to reach President Biden’s desk by Sept. 30.

“Reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration is a real opportunity for this committee to focus on aviation safety and also innovation,” Ranking Member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said. “It is my hope that we use the reauthorization opportunity to push the FAA safety and technology into the 21st century.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced bipartisan legislation after the FAA’s Notices to Air Missions (NOTAM) system outage.

The NOTAM Improvement Act would require the FAA to establish a task force to strengthen the resiliency and cybersecurity of the NOTAM system, which alerts pilots of safety and location hazards on flight routes. Companion legislation has already passed in the House.

Sen. Klobuchar also said she is currently working on a bipartisan bill that will expand the FAA’s workforce development – “a key part of this, both at the FAA and at the private airlines,” she said.

The Senate committee will conduct its next hearing on Feb. 15 about the FAA’s NOTAM system failure and the agency’s actions to strengthen the resiliency of the system.

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.