For Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee members, safe skies trumped national technology and innovation.
During a hearing of five nominees, lawmakers spent most of their time asking Randolph Babbitt, the Federal Aviation Administration nominee, how he will keep the skies safe, deal with airline anti-trust issues and whether small airfields can survive.
But committee member spent little time asking questions of Aneesh Chopra, the nominee to be the federal chief technology officer and associate director for technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Chopra faced one question, and received some kind words from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a former Virginia governor.
Warner says Chopra is in “a new position that combined with the CIO and the chief performance officer can bring a new focus to make sure we are more effective and efficient, and more technological adept at our national level.”
He adds, “As someone who has spent a great deal of time with Aneesh keeping up with all his ideas, he’s a bit of whirlwind and I know he will bring that same energy to this position.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked about health information technology and how it could be applied to rural areas of the country to address long-term care.
“This is example of an opportunity to essentially address two of our challenges to promote innovation strategy that creates new jobs,” Chopra says. “In addition to we see an opportunity to bend the curve on health care costs and lower our cost structure in addressing their needs.”
He adds that part of his job as an advisor President Obama will be to “harness the power of this capacity on the President’s priorities for health care reform and economic growth.”
Chopra may have received other written questions as members had the rest of the day to submit them. The nominees had until 6 p.m. Tuesday to respond to the questions. The committee scheduled a vote on these nominations Wednesday, and it is expected that the full Senate will approve them before Congress goes on Memorial Day recess Friday.
Chopra in his opening statement calls for pragmatic policy to address job creation, keep companies competitive and communications affordable and easy to obtain.
“We will apply the most innovative technologies to our most important challenges,” he says.
These include health care, the security and efficiency of the nation’s energy grids and an educational system that puts a special emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, he says.
Chopra also points to his experience in Virginia where he invited innovation from state employees. He encouraged state workers to turn ideas into prototypes to meet priorities.
“Our Productivity Investment Fund channeled modest resources into 30-plus projects that will deliver 4-to-1 returns on taxpayer investment over three years,” he says.
Most of the hearing, however focused on Babbitt. The other nominees received limited attention, but Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), the committee ranking member, started off asking Babbitt about anti-trust rules and the next generation air traffic control system. And the other committee members followed suit.
Hutchinson asks Babbitt if NextGen would be his highest priority. Babbitt, who is a pilot and has spent 40 years in the aviation industry, reminds the Senator that safety always is his top concern.
But NextGen was a close second. Babbitt vowed to work with airline and airport stakeholders to ensure the system, which could cost more than $25 billion, meets their needs from the start.
“I intend to build on my extensive experience to meet agency’s current and future challenges by working to foster better communication within the aviation community, including the flying public, the manufacturers, the airlines, labor, the general aviation community and transportation leaders,” he says.
Babbitt says he wants to see what technology exists at airports or on aircraft that would let FAA implement a lot of key functions of NextGen in the immediate future.
He points to technology that a Louisville airport is using that reduces fuel usage by 400 to 500 pounds for every arrival, and reduces the noise footprint as well.
“We need to see what we can deploy and deploy it efficiently and strategically,” Babbitt says. “There are places where we will gain biggest advantage by reducing delays instead of doing things on linear basis.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) asks about deploying NextGen more quickly.
To that, Babbitt says, the FAA must come up with a plan so airlines and airports understand why they are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into each aircraft.
“One of my highest priorities is to make the FAA as accountable and credible as we can be so when we ask someone to make that type of a capital commitment, they are going to see a benefit,” he says. “If they are going enjoy if they make $1 million investment over a period of years, they will save $2 million in fuel and five minutes a leg or some calculable amount of money.”
He adds that they need to deploy the technology at some of the airports with the worst delays to prove the benefits. . “We need to understand the technology and deploy it and once we are convinced it’s up and running, I think it comes naturally people will want to provide equipment on aircraft,” he says.