Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hiding in Plain Sight

If you took the time to read the Louisville Courier-Journal article from an earlier post you would have read this:

"The FAA did not respond to an Oct. 4 request, filed under the Freedom of Information Act, for the number of controllers working at each facility. The agency is working on a new staffing standard for each site but doesn't expect to complete it until spring.
Gannett News Service and The Courier-Journal relied upon facility-by-facility statistics gathered by the union and compared them with the "authorized numbers," which the union and FAA negotiated in 1998 and adjusted through 2003."

Kind of interesting don’t you think ? Knowing how many employees you have is kind of basic. And the Freedom of Information Act is a law. I don’t know much about it but I know that much.

I just learned of some new information. This document (a Windows .doc file) from the FAA.

Contained in the document is this little tidbit.

"Air Traffic Controller Staffing Plan: We are currently 113 controllers below where we should be at the end of November."

So, the FAA knows how many controllers it has (or more appropriately, doesn’t have) but they didn’t answer a FOI request for the information. What is going on ?

The answer (as usual) is right in front of you if you know what you’re looking for. In that I did work for the FAA, I have the advantage of having seen this tactic time and time again.

"The agency is working on a new staffing standard for each site but doesn't expect to complete it until spring."

The trick is to change -- I’m sorry, improve your “standards” -- the way things are measured -- every few years so that the previous data is no longer “relevant.”

"While the FAA argues those numbers are no longer relevant,...."

That way, you can’t track trends over long periods of time. Or if you change the way you grade yourself, you can change your grade.

I predict the controller staffing shortage will look much better when the FAA completes it’s new staffing standard this spring.

Don Brown
December 27, 2006

Chalk and Cheese

I had a most pleasant experience over the holiday. Some old friends of ours had a small party at their house. Nothing special, just hors d'oeuvres and conversation.

Our friends are half and half; he English and she American. They are friends with several couples in the same boat, one English and the other American. I can only assume my wife and I feel so at ease in this crowd because of our similar differences. I’m a Southerner and my wife is a Yankee. Of course, in this crowd, we’re both “Yanks.” Which is part of the charm in this group. We have enough differences to make the conversation interesting, yet we’re all similar enough to provide an easy comfort. And of course, the common language that separates us provides for comedic relief.

“Sir” John (it’s an inside joke) was making some point or other and in his wonderful accent said, “Well, they’re as different as chalk and cheese aren’t they ?” Only, in struggling to decipher John’s accent, I heard “Chuckie Cheese.” As you can imagine, this didn’t quite fit into the logic of the conversation and I was left to wonder (for a second or two) why John would be comparing anything to Chuckie Cheese. Trying to recover, I said, “I’m sorry John, what kind of cheese was that ?” You can imagine the smile this brought to his face. And so the night goes.

Despite the language barrier, we all manage to have wide-ranging conversations -- from the silly to the sublime. What I found most interesting (and what inspired me to write this post) was that we are able to talk politics. I mean talk -- as in a real discussion. No yelling, no sound bites, no ill will. It was refreshing.

No one was ridiculed. No one was belittled. Not even me, when my new friend Ian pointed out (gently) that I was probably the last person on the planet that hadn’t read Paul Krugman of the New York Times.

Just in case I’m actually the next to last person that hasn’t read Mr. Krugman, here’s some interesting reading.

Friendly, intelligent and interesting conversation. Conversation where you actually learn something. As opposed to the mean-spirited one-upmanship you see in most political “conversation” these days. It was as different as chalk and cheese.

Don Brown
December 27, 2006

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

A beautiful song from midnight Mass.

”Peace be to you and grace from him....”

Merry Christmas everybody.

Don Brown
December 25, 2006

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Getting the Flick Yet ?

Are you starting to see a pattern ? I have to tell you, it is frightfully easy to find one. Every time I get on the computer and start reading I stumble on another article or editorial that lists the same symptoms.

I stumbled on this one yesterday from a New York Times editorial. Flynt Leverett (a co-author of the article) worked at the National Security Council. His writings are evidently subject to some sort of government review. Suddenly, the rules of the game seem to have changed and an article -- based on publicly available information -- is censored.

What We Wanted to Tell You About Iran

”What’s more, we have spent a collective 20 years serving our country as career civil servants in national security, for both Republican and Democratic administrations. We know firsthand the importance of protecting sensitive information. But we also know the importance of shared knowledge. In the entrance to the C.I.A.’s headquarters the words of the Gospel of John are inscribed, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.””

It’s an extraordinary situation. A “secret keeper” trying to educate the public and the New York Times reduced to quoting its competitors in order to report the news. Take a few minutes to read it.

Don Brown
December 23, 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006

Deja Vu Too

I don’t know how many more times I can stand to read something so agonizingly familiar. Is Congress in a coma ?

”How did this happen? The first problem, apparently, was simply handing the program over to private contractors who could, and often did, override or ignore the concerns of Coast Guard engineers. In addition, Coast Guard oversight at the highest level was slipshod or non-existent. They trusted the contractors to get it right.”

Read the piece from the Miami Herald editorial page.

I’m not an ex-Coastie. I don’t even know anybody in the Coast Guard. I can remember Hurricane Katrina though. Nobody had to ask, “Where’s the Coast Guard ?” As much scorn as was (rightfully) heaped on FEMA, just as much praise was lavished on the Coast Guard.

I knew I wasn’t dreaming. Two seconds on Google. (Gotta love the internet.)

From the Washington Post

Coast Guard's Response to Katrina a Silver Lining in the Storm

Another agency on the road to ruin ?

Don Brown
December 22, 2006

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Fire Them ? All ?

I’m done with my Christmas shopping (well, almost) , my deadline and the flu so I can get back to blogging again. I even found time to read more of the Courier-Journal article I posted earlier. There’s some interesting -- and puzzling -- stuff in there. What has the controllers in an uproar is this quote from Congressman John Mica (R-FL), the outgoing chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation. (Let me stress “outgoing.”)

"There's a lot of contract politics being played here," Mica said. "I know they're not happy, but we're going work with them. I don't have the option President Reagan had to fire all of them."

The Congressman doesn’t have to work with me. I retired. Still, I have to wonder what brought on that statement. Anger ? Angst ? Fear ? Just having a bad day ? Or are controllers really just a bunch of dirty, rotten scoundrels ?

The Congressman is correct in that the controllers are not happy. They’re angry. Very angry. They’re as angry as I’ve ever seen them. And that has been since President Reagan fired “all of them.” Don’t you find it interesting that it’s an entirely different group ? Aren’t you just the least bit curious about that ? How do you take two entirely separate groups, 25 years apart and make them that angry ? Coincidence ? Fate ?

In addition, firing “all of them” doesn’t appear to have provided any solution. It seems to have bought 25 years of time but it didn’t solve anything. Why ?

I can supply my answers to these questions but it wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful as the answers you can provide yourself -- with a little information and a little thinking. Much of what you need to know about the current situation is contained in another quote in another section of the article.

Randall Dailey is the local representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at Lexington, KY. If you’ll remember, a Comair jet crashed while taking off there in August of this year. Mr. Dailey doesn’t have to worry (too much) about some government official trying to “fire” him because his freedom of speech as a union representative is protected by law. Other FAA employees don’t enjoy that same right. The article quotes Mr. Dailey as saying,

“ Overtime at Lexington has ballooned from a total of 32 hours of overtime in the year before the crash to 1,100 hours since the crash.”

That simple statement of fact has more truth behind it than any outsider can ever know.

Don Brown
December 21, 2006

Monday, December 18, 2006

Got Controllers ?

The Gannett News Service published an in-depth article about the nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers today. I thought you might like to check it out.

I haven’t had time to read it all yet. ‘Tis the season to run behind, yada, yada....

Don Brown
December 18, 2006

Friday, December 15, 2006

Supply and Demand -- ORD

If I got you to think a little about airport arrival rates yesterday, here’s another piece of the puzzle to plug into the equation.

"Normally, the morning arrival rate for O’Hare’s three runways is 96 aircraft per hour. But the radar outage has meant that controllers sequencing approaches from the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility in Elgin, Ill., have had to put more space between planes for safety, cutting the arrival rate to 60 aircraft per hour."

If you’re real industrious, you can go to this site and check out the demand at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

Even if you’re not an aviation-minded individual, you’ll be fascinated by this animation.

Don Brown
December 15, 2006

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Airline Deregulation -- Again

Speaking of airline deregulation...

I don’t know if you caught it but Kai Ryssdal of MarketPlace had a story about the airline business on NPR just yesterday. It’s the same old story. Airline deregulation has been bad for the airline business but good for the traveling public. The “good” being mostly cheap airfares.

The “traveling public” does not equate to the American Public. Has deregulation been good for America ? Let’s look at what cheap airfares have done for America. According to Mr. Ryssdal’s story, there have been over 100 airline bankruptcies since deregulation. A quick search on NPR’s site reveals another story that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation was 23 billion dollars in the hole -- last year. Who is the Pension Guaranty Corporation ? Us, the taxpayers.

If you delve into this mess, you’ll find a substantial portion of that deficit is due to airlines declaring bankruptcy -- not because of their pension liabilities but -- to terminate their pension liabilities. It’s a tactic to foist their pension obligations on the taxpayers so that the company can survive to fly another day in order to create even more destructive competition in the airline industry.

Let’s review. Airlines can’t make money in a deregulated environment. You can let all of them go bankrupt and the process will just start all over again. Well, actually we can’t afford to let them all go bankrupt. Air transportation is too vital to the national economy. Which is one reason the government keeps finding ways to bail them out. In order to survive in a system that isn’t survivable the airlines are bleeding their employees which will bring on a whole host of even more ills. In the meantime, they’re dumping their debts on the American Public -- the very same people that are supposedly reaping the rewards of “cheap” airfares. By the way, I don’t know if you’ve been flying lately or not but “rewarding” is not how I’d characterize the experience.

In case I didn’t make it clear earlier, the solution (or at least a solution) is sitting right in front of us. A 100-airplane -an-hour airport can’t accept but 100 airplanes an hour. (We won’t talk about weather -- for now.) Don’t let the airlines (or anybody else) schedule more than 100 an hour (unlike the 110, 120, 130 an hour that they do now.)

Somebody has to decide who gets those slots and I’d recommend the Federal government. They are supposed to be the fair arbitrator in our nation, the ones looking after the Public’s interest. (Have I mentioned how important I think public service is ?) The Free Marketeers would probably tell you that the “market” would do better job of it. But hey, they said that about airline deregulation too.

Don Brown
December 14, 2006

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Allah Akbar !

Allah Akbar ! If you’re like me and that phrase in Arabic (it translates to “God is great”) is about the limit of your knowledge of Arabic and Islam -- have I got the book for you. No god but God by Reza Aslan.

It was recommended to me by a priest and it was exactly what I was looking for -- a brief history of Islam.

The book is only some 260 pages (plus the glossary and index) yet it provides a wealth of information. It will take you from the beginnings of Islam up until today, explaining much of the culture along the way. I’ll leave the details for you to discover but I’d like to make some observations.

God is indeed great. And good. I wonder how many of us can open our eyes (or our hearts) enough to see the similarities between what is simplistically portrayed on TV as a war cry (Allah Akbar) and a child’s simple blessing before a meal (God is great, God is good...) In a land soaked in hate and blood, there is indeed “no god but God.” The god of Abraham is the god worshipped by Muslims, Jews and Christians. I can not think of a crueler, more shameful irony.

I don’t know if it was Mr. Aslan’s intention to point out these similarities or if he was just presenting the facts as he knows them. Regardless, it was what stuck with me after reading the book. In the opening pages, you will read an exchange between Mr. Aslan and a train conductor. He tells us this is a common greeting among Muslims. “Salaam alay-kum”. And the customary reply: “Walay-kum salaam.” ”Peace be with you.” And also with you, Reza. Thanks for writing such a wonderful book.

Don Brown
December 13, 2006

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

In Public Service

Public Service is important. I know. I was once a public servant. It sounds self-serving and perhaps it is. But not as self-serving as some of the tripe that passes for wisdom on talk radio. You’d think that government is the root of all evil, listening to the radio or reading some editorials. Odd that every country in the world chooses to have one. And many would gladly trade theirs for ours.

We can argue about the size of government. I think that is a legitimate debate. It’d be a little more difficult to argue for bad government, although, I suspect you could find some that would. Assuming you aren’t one of those, it follows that, whatever size government you believe we should have, you’d like for it to be a good government.

It’s really hard to have good government when you put Uncle Joe’s half-wit son in charge of a department.

Government needs good people. Trust me. Government employees do some important work. From air traffic controllers to CDC scientists to Congressmen. Yes, even Congress. I can’t understand a society that thinks little-to-nothing of paying a CEO $20 million dollars a year to attract “the best and the brightest” but only wants to pay the guy that works for them -- a Congressman -- $165,200 dollars. If you were the smartest guy in your State which job would you take ? No, I don’t want to pay a Congressman $20 million a year. I don’t think our Representatives should be motivated mostly by greed. I don’t think they should be reduced to taking barely legal/moral handouts/bribes to enjoy some of the finer things in life, either. I suspect that somebody of the caliber that we’d want to represent us would like to buy their wife a nice house and send their kids to a nice college too. I think they should be able to do so, without feeling beholden to somebody else with more money than scruples.

I could go on about this subject for some time but I’m trying to keep these posts short. Besides, there’s always tomorrow. Do me a favor and try to think of government employees as they really are -- your employees. You’ve got a few bad ones but you’ve got some really good ones too. I worked with them. And the next time the political season comes around think about who you would like to hire to work for you. If they don’t apply for the job, figure out what it’d take to get them to come work for you.

Don Brown
December 12, 2006

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Perfect Title

I don’t require a book to be enjoyable to read it. I will read for fun, of course. I think it’s healthy. My daughter talked me into reading her first Harry Potter book and I wound up reading them all. However, I can’t remember the last time a book made me mad.

I don’t know if Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco will make you mad or not but I think you should read it. I certainly can’t think of another book that is more appropriately titled. I appreciate brevity simply because I don’t posses the talent for it. “Fiasco” is the one word -- the perfect word -- to describe our “military adventure in Iraq.”

Mr. Ricks does a great job of providing the details to make his case. I also think he is fair -- something that is sorely lacking in today’s partisan environment. He (rightly) points out the failure of our country’s press to ask the tough questions about our policies in regards to Iraq. Mr. Ricks is the Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post. Enough said.

I will plant one thought in your brain. Should you choose to read this excellent book, think about how important a competent Civil Service is to this country as you go though the litany of mistakes made. We’ve all had the importance of “checks and balances” in our government drilled into our heads since grade school. Notice how they failed. Notice what it has (and will) cost us.

Don Brown
December 9, 2006

Friday, December 08, 2006

Airline Deregulation

There was an article on airline deregulation recently in Time magazine. I wanted to write a letter to the editor in response but it’s those kind of things that I didn’t get to write about in my former life. The FAA sure didn’t want me to speak about it and there was no “upside” for NATCA. NATCA could take a position on it but they have enough problems to deal with, without taking on more.

Airline deregulation doesn’t work. There. I said it. It’s time somebody did. You can read a good history on the subject in Thomas Petzinger’s book Hard Landing and I’d recommend you do so. It’s an educational and enjoyable book. But the history of why we -- as a country -- decided to deregulate the airlines doesn’t change the facts. The simple fact is that it doesn’t work. We’ve spent the last 25 years proving it doesn’t.

Yes, yes. I know Milton Friedman is spinning in his grave and Alfred Kahn might join him if he reads this but neither has the perspective I have. I watched airline deregulation unfold sitting behind a radar scope. It’s simple. Everybody wants to fly to New York. Or Chicago. Or Atlanta. Pick your big city. The reason is just as simple. That is where the people are. And those people want to fly during the normal human wake-cycle. Say 6 AM to 11 PM. If you want to conduct some business, it’s compressed even further to about 9 AM to 5 PM.

If you’re a business that carries people in airplanes, that is when (and where) you fly. Oh sure, there is a market for an airline like Southwest. We just won’t be flying a Boeing 737 from California to Japan or New York to Munich. Speaking of the overseas routes, did you see where Delta has a new strategy of concentrating on overseas routes and pulling back on domestic routes ? Is it just me or does that conjure up visions of America’s past (de facto) overseas airline; Pan Am ? Let me get back on course.

The reason airline deregulation doesn’t work is runways. Or a lack thereof. It shouldn’t surprise too many people to know that demand exceeds supply in the places that count -- the big cities. Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD) is everybody’s favorite poster child when it comes to delays. In 2004, the delays at ORD were so out of hand that the U.S. Department of Transportation persuaded United and American Airlines to “voluntarily” cut back their flights by 5 percent. Regulation by any other name...

Airline deregulation has had over 25 years to work. It hasn’t. It hasn’t been a total failure but neither was regulation. Under regulation we had a strong and vibrant aviation system. Stable companies with stable and good paying jobs. Under deregulation we’ve had bankruptcy after bankruptcy. People -- our fellow citizens -- have lost their jobs, their savings and their pensions. I believe that kind of economic and social damage has to be factored into the equation when we talk about the benefits of a cheap airline ticket.

Regardless of your socioeconomic feelings or mine, a 100 airplane-an-hour airport can only handle 100 airplanes per hour. While we debate policy, the airplanes continue to circle in holding patterns waiting for a landing slot, clogging our airspace and needlessly decreasing safety margins. I’m not arguing for a return to the days of the Civil Aeronautics Board. I’m just arguing for a policy that works. Airline deregulation doesn’t.

Don Brown
December 8, 2007

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Well, the big day has finally arrived. I am officially retired from the United States government, Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration. Actually, it was a few days ago, on December 1st. I’ve just been waiting for my latest article on Avweb to be published. I didn’t want to steal my own thunder (as it were.)

Being involved with any organization -- be it the Federal Government, NATCA or Avweb -- has some type of influence on what you say (or write.) Perhaps that is the interest in blogs -- seeing what people think without the filters. Regardless, I’ve been looking forward to the day when I could write without the filters.

And now that that day is here, what do I write about ? There is so much from which to choose. Civil Service. The Iraq War. Politics. Air Traffic Control. Some great books I’ve read lately (the best thing about retirement so far...time to read.) Politics. And the list goes on.

But where to start ? I know. I’ll start with...

Thank You.

Assuming you’re an American citizen and pay taxes, I owe you one big “thank you.” You’ve provided me with what is quickly becoming a luxury -- a good career. I sincerely appreciate it. I’ll have a lot more to say about it in the future but for now let me just say thank you. It has been an honor.

Don Brown
Dec. 7, 2006