Keeping planes in the air has taken a back seat at the Federal Aviation Administration as the agency pivots its focus to diversity, equity, and inclusion under the leadership of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
The FAA’s mission-critical pilot safety alerting system crashed overnight, causing the agency to temporarily ground all outgoing air traffic across the country Wednesday morning and delay more than 6,500 flights. The FAA has had much to say about the system under Buttigieg’s watch, but not for matters relating to its functionality or upkeep. Rather, the agency announced in December 2021 that it had changed the system’s name from "Notice to Airmen" to "Notice to Air Mission," a "more applicable term" that the agency said is "inclusive of all aviators and missions."
"The language we use in aerospace matters," the FAA tweeted from its official account. "We’ve begun to adopt gender-neutral and inclusive aviation terminology as part of our agency-wide initiative."
It’s not clear why the system failed overnight, but the White House said there was no evidence of a cyberattack. Buttigieg said Wednesday he didn’t know how the system crashed and ordered a root cause analysis to determine the cause of the failure. "Glitches or complications happen all the time," Buttigieg said on MSNBC.
The air safety system’s name change came months after an FAA advisory committee issued a report in June 2021 recommending the agency replace a wide swath of words and phrases with gender-neutral terms. The updated language, the advisory committee said, would help combat unintentional bias and reflect a "more modern recognition that gender can be binary."
Recommendations included replacing "airman" with "aircrew," "manned aviation" with "traditional aviation," and "cockpit" with "flight deck."
The FAA took the recommendations to heart. The agency hosted a two-and-a-half-hour virtual inclusive language summit in November 2021 to discuss its initiative to adopt "gender-neutral and inclusive language" nationwide.
Aerospace is for everyone, and the language we use matters. We launched an agency-wide initiative to adopt gender-neutral and inclusive aviation terminology. Watch the Inclusive Language Summit at https://t.co/6YNdyJYE4b. #BestOf2021 pic.twitter.com/oHbad8rbOd
— The FAA ✈️ (@FAANews) December 29, 2021
The Transportation Department’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion is also reflected in its $26.8 billion budget request for the 2023 fiscal year.
The department said it would allocate funds to tackle climate change, address inequities, and advance "environmental justice." The department requested $15.2 billion for the FAA to improve aviation safety and infrastructure, but said it would enact those improvements by promoting environmental justice, climate change mitigation, and "enhancing equity through more inclusive contracting and workforce development."
Buttigieg has come under fire for his absentee leadership of the Transportation Department. The ambitious politician was on paid child leave and was "mostly offline" in late 2021 amid one of the worst supply chain crises in modern American history.
In August 2022, Buttigieg quietly jetted off to Portugal for a "long-planned personal trip" just days before rail contract negotiations entered a critical period, the Washington Free Beacon reported.
House Democrats have questioned why Buttigieg isn’t doing more to penalize Southwest Airlines for canceling more than 15,000 flights over the holidays. "We believe much more needs to be done," more than two dozen lawmakers wrote in a letter to the secretary.