House Republicans slam FAA for delayed pilot IDs

Delays in design of biometric datacard show government inefficiency compared with private sector, lawmakers charge.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., lashed out on Thursday at officials charged with introducing a new pilot identification card using embedded biometric data that Congress first mandated in 2004.

The Federal Aviation Administration was supposed to begin issuing the new IDs in 2005, but the agency got bogged down with other priorities and lacked expertise and experience with biometrics, FAA associate Administrator Peggy Gilligan told committee members at a hearing.

The IDs, which are aimed at preventing would-be terrorists and hijackers from bluffing their way into cockpits with phony credentials, were part of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which implemented many of the reforms suggested by the 9/11 Commission.

FAA expects to issue a final plan for new photo IDs that may contain biometric data in 2012 and to roll them out within a five-year period, Gilligan said. By 2017, the new IDs will be required for all pilots, including commercial, hobby and student pilots, she said.

Mica and other committee members scoffed at the FAA timeline, noting that it represented more than a decade between a congressional national security directive and a full agency response.

"This is a classic example of why the American people are disgruntled with the federal government," said freshman Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind. "Most private-sector security firms could have solved this years ago."

Gilligan blamed part of the delay on relations with the Transportation Security Administration, which in the project's initial stages had superior experience with collecting biometric identifiers such as fingerprints and iris scans in electronic form.

The FAA reached out to the TSA for help on the IDs and to ensure that the two agencies didn't perform duplicative work, Gilligan said. But the attempts at cooperation devolved into bureaucratic miscommunications and delays.

In the meantime, FAA moved forward on an earlier legislative mandate that directed the agency to produce only durable, tamper-resistant pilot IDs and didn't require embedded biometric data or even pilot photos, Gilligan said.

That project cost the agency about $2.7 million, she said.

Lawmakers at the hearing mocked the photo-less IDs for "only picture[ing] two pilots: Orville and Wilbur Wright" on an icon in the corner.

"So we have a pilots' license that the TSA won't accept [at airport security] because it doesn't meet the criteria set forth in law, and we spent millions on that," Mica said.

The new IDs will contain digital photos of the pilots and might contain embedded data for pilots' thumbprints, according to FAA documents; they might also contain scans of pilots' irises, depending on how much hardware is required to store that data, according to FAA.

Developing, distributing and replacing the new IDs will cost about $380 million (in 2008 dollars) during a 20-year period, according to estimates from a version of the FAA plan issued in November.

Pilots would pick up about $236 million of that tab from collecting $22 per-pilot fees for the new IDs, and another $17 million would be borne by pilot accreditation agencies that would process the ID information, according to the plan. FAA would pick up the remaining $127 million.

Gilligan sat by an empty chair fronted by a nameplate for TSA Administrator John Pistole.

Mica, who has been trying to compel Pistole to testify before his committee since his first days in office and has harangued him for allegedly not being responsive to Congress on several issues, including the debate over the airport full-body scans the agency introduced in 2010.

Mica criticized Pistole several times for "refusing" to appear at Thursday's hearing and said TSA had also declined to meet with his committee in closed-door session.

A TSA spokesperson told Nextgov in an email that the House's own rules don't give the Transportation Committee jurisdiction over TSA and that TSA officials haven't testified before the committee since 2008.

Nearly all of the members at Thursday's hearing were freshman Republicans, several of whom chastised FAA by referencing their recent experiences in the private sector.

The small hearing room was packed to capacity, though, with several lawmakers sitting at the witness table or along a side wall.