Anthony Foxx is scheduled to appear before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today, to answer questions about his nomination to be the next Transportation Secretary. Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., is a mildly controversial pick because he has no professional background in transportation policy. His chief qualification -- aside from being a Democrat who enthusiastically supports President Obama -- appears to be the fact he's a former Justice Department lawyer.
Nothing has emerged on the public record since his nomination to suggest that he should not be confirmed, and so it appears quite likely that he will be confirmed by the full Senate in due time. For that reason, Foxx should examine a failing in transportation safety policy that he can easily fix if he wants to make an impact right away: Get the Federal Aviation Administration off the dime by directing it to terminate its dangerous exemption of lighter-than-air gliders from regulations requiring aircraft to carry anti-midair-collision warning devices.
The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that the FAA make exactly this change for decades. Earlier this year, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman talked to reporters about the matter during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, pointing to a near-collision involving a glider and a NetJet business aircraft in 2006. The glider was not equipped with the warning device, so the NetJet pilot had no idea it was in the vicinity until it was too late.
"The glider pilot did come down safely, and the business jet was able to land safely. But out of that investigation, we realized we have great [anti-collision] technology, but if only 50 percent of the equation is equipped with that technology, you are not really going to get the benefit of it," said Hersman.
If anything, she understates the drama of the incident. The glider pilot had to use his parachute and the plane had to land "wheels up" because the collision damaged its landing gear. It is amazing no one died. Federal data indicates there have been at least 28 collisions or near-misses and seven fatalities involving gliders and motorized aircraft since 1998.
"This has been an ongoing issue near Reno," then-FAA Senior Vice President of Operations Rick Day said in a 2009 memo obtained by The Washington Examiner via the Freedom of Information Act. A 2011 FAA powerpoint presentation on collision avoidance notes the potential danger because gliders often "operate in the same airspace as high performance ... traffic" but the current regulation "does not require [the anti-collision warning device]."
For years, the FAA said the devices were too heavy for gliders, but lightweight digital units using GPS have long since rendered that argument obsolete. The main private association of glider enthusiasts, the Soaring Society of America, urges its own members to use the warning device and has encouraged the government to make the device mandatory. Only the FAA seems stuck on this. The agency held a public comment hearing on a proposed rule mandating the device last year. But nothing has happened since that hearing. The proposed rule appears to have been lost somewhere in the bureaucracy. Finding the proposal and making it final would give Foxx a quick and easy victory. It would also save lives.