At Hearing, Tester Presses Top Aviation Nominee on Staffing Shortages at Montana’s Rural Airports

Senator: Ensuring our airports are staffed is “a life or death situation”

As a part of his continued work to expand access to reliable air service for rural communities, U.S. Senator Jon Tester recently pressed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator nominee Michael Whitaker on his plan to address staffing shortages in rural airports, including many in Montana. If confirmed, Mr. Whitaker will be the top official in the FAA, tasked with recruiting and retaining the nation’s aviation workforce.

Tester began his remarks by stressing the importance of retaining and recruiting a robust aviation workforce, emphasizing the workforce shortage that airports across the country are facing specifically with air traffic controllers: “We’re seeing shortages [with air traffic controllers] too,” Tester said. “My question to you is, do you have any plans on how we can address that workforce shortage? Because, frankly, it’s a life or death situation.”

Mr. Whitaker emphasized the importance of having a wide pipeline, and an aggressive recruiting strategy: “It’s definitely an area that we need to focus on and we need to fix,”replied Mr. Whitaker. “It’s been going on for too long and I think it was exacerbated by COVID.”

Tester then underscored the challenges that rural communities in particular face when it comes to aviation staffing shortages, specifically with pilots.

“I come from a state where [the airports] are destinations, not hubs,” said Tester. “We’ve got fewer flight options. In fact, it’s fair to say, at least in my case, that this is a different world post-pandemic than it is pre-pandemic. It’s not better, it’s worse. Part of it is that we have no pilots.”

Tester concluded his remarks by underlining the importance of recruiting and retaining pilots, to ensure that rural communities have safe, affordable flight options. He emphasized the necessity to fix the issue, and ensure that there are enough pilots in the pipeline to maintain and grow rural airports’ capacity, pressing Mr. Whitaker to have a clear, achievable plan. 

Senator Tester has been Montana’s leading champion for upgrading Montana’s rural airport infrastructure and addressing staffing shortages. This past year, he secured approximately $144 million for 69 Montana airports through his bipartisan infrastructure law, which will be awarded over five years through the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Airport Improvement Grants, and can be used to construct or repair runways and taxiways as well as make terminal and gate improvements. Tester also introduced the bipartisan Small Community Air Service Development Grant Act to ensure Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP) can continue and fought to make sure this program was fully funded in the 2023 government funding bill.