Friday, September 26, 2008

Clean Up On Aisle Eight

As the folks on Wall Street stare into the abyss, the folks in Washington try to figure out a way to clean up the mess. I realize that everyone in the Free World -- let’s just make that everyone -- is wondering, what do we do now ?

The air traffic control system doesn’t carry the same weight as the world’s economy but it is a significant endeavor nevertheless. Aviation and aerospace represent about nine percent of the U.S. GDP. Boeing is the largest exporter in the country. I thought while Washington is distracted by the financial crisis, I’d take a look at the aviation crisis and see how we might clean that up.

Unless I miss my guess, the “business is better”, “government is the problem”, “let’s contract out everything if we can’t privatize” era is over. Ronald Reagan’s "Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem" manta has turned into praying that government actually is the solution. What we need is competent government with a smart, professional civil service. We have our work cut out for us.

The first thing that needs to happen is that the leadership needs to set the tone.

”I think that one of the missions I have as president is to, not create a bigger government, but to restore some luster to the federal government. To recruit the best and the brightest, and to say that service in federal government is something that is critically important to the well-being of the American people, and by the way, to the well-being of the marketplace. “

That sounds about right to me.

In my mind, the government needs to go back to being the government. It doesn’t need to “act more like a business.” It needs to be the best government it can be. That -- above all -- will take competent government employees.

There will be no better time to find them. Because of Wall Street’s malfeasance and this Administration’s failure to govern, there will be a huge pool of talent looking for a good, stable job. That is, if the financial crisis is contained. Otherwise, there will be a horde looking for a job -- any job. One way or another, the talent is out there. All the next Administration has to do is get it in place.

Likewise, there is no better time to institute landing slot restrictions at all commercial airports. As my readers know, this is a key factor in my ideas on how to fix our aviation system. On a fundamental level, landing slot restrictions address the reality of limited capacity at airports. On a regulatory level, it provides the stability the market needs to allow airlines to prosper.

Now that regulation is no longer a dirty word, I would recommend we limit the scheduled commercial air traffic to the IFR arrival rate. Again, it’s a negotiable item but I assume the economy (and travel demand) will contract in the immediate future. In that “politics is the art of the possible”, it might be possible to get the tighter restrictions in place now. This is important for two reasons.

First, a major problem for the airline industry since deregulation is the level of destructive competition. Combined with the lack of slot restrictions, the most popular airports have been overwhelmed as airlines overschedule our major airports. There simply isn’t enough capacity (runways) to meet the demand at these critical airports. When we run out of room at these airports, it overwhelms the air traffic control system. The holding patterns fill up, clogging up the airspace used for enroute traffic and the whole thing snowballs. Departures are held on the ground at other airports to relieve the pressure and the whole system starts grinding to a halt. Despite the billions of dollars spent on “flow control”, the situation has only grown worse. That is because “flow control” doesn’t address the fundamental problem -- overscheduling at the busiest (most popular) airports.

The second reason for the tighter restrictions is the sorry state of the air traffic control system. The ATC system is near the breaking point. No one knows precisely where that point is -- we never will until it breaks -- but you’ll just have to trust me (and the people that work it) that it is. Hardware, software, maintenance, personnel -- there isn’t any good news at the FAA. We’ll get to the details momentarily. For now, it’s important to understand that the ATC system needs some breathing room. Slot restrictions will give it the room it needs to get some new people on board.

There is one other regulatory function that needs to be addressed before we get to the details at the FAA. The rules that govern the entry of new airlines into the system need tightening up. This is an area outside my expertise so I have to tread lightly. You cannot have a stable group of air carriers if they have to continuously fight off an unlimited number of cut-rate, start-up airlines. The idea is to regulate competition -- not destroy all competition. You want competition but you don’t want destructive competition -- which is what we’ve had since airline deregulation. That is why our airline industry has nearly been destroyed. Restricting access to the major airports (slot restrictions) might be enough to limit new entries into the market. But it might not. Further measures might be needed.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. The FAA needs to take back many of the functions that it has contracted out. Training, maintenance and computer programming support.

The FAA is busy developing what will be the biggest computer program it has taken on in decades -- ERAM. Without a doubt, the FAA needs Lockheed Martin’s expertise in developing such a large and unique program. It is what happens afterwards that the FAA needs to concentrate on. The program is one-of-a-kind. The FAA is the sole customer. Even if Lockheed is successful in marketing portions of it to other countries, the FAA will still be a unique user. There is simply no other ATC system close to the FAA in sheer size.

The thing to remember is that the program ERAM is replacing is around 40 years old. Even if ERAM only lasts half that long, it is longer than Lockheed will be willing to support it without some truly outlandish incentives. We’ve seen this over and over again in the FAA. The FAA’s unique requirements -- including the long-term stability needed in the NAS -- are beyond what private industry can support. The day-to-day requirements of data systems support needs to be internalized to the FAA. The FAA needs to take responsibility for the institutional memory of its data system support. For those that remember the Data Systems Specialists, no further explanation is needed. They became the experts on the data systems and remained the experts long after the private contractors (IBM on the last system) had moved on.

Another area is training. The FAA needs to do virtually all air traffic control training in-house. The College Training Initiative school idea is a farce. There is really only one employer of air traffic controllers in the United States and that is Uncle Sam. The idea of having a college-like system for one occupation that only has one employer is ridiculous on its face. The FAA needs to scrap the program and go back to doing all its initial ATC training at their academy in Oklahoma City.

Controller training at the facilities needs to be brought back into the FAA. Currently, at the Centers, much of it is done by WCG -- Washington Consulting Group. This is another failed “business is better-they-can-do-it-cheaper” idea. What you have is a bunch of retired controllers -- rehired by a private contractor -- providing new controllers with training, and senior controllers with refresher training. As soon as a new piece of equipment is introduced on the control room floor -- say URET for instance -- you soon have retired controllers, that have never used a piece of equipment in real life, providing controllers that use it every, single day with refresher training. That too is a farce.

The need to return training to an internal function goes beyond that obvious flaw. The instructors need to have a stake in the system. If you use current, qualified controllers to provide the training -- controllers that will be working with the trainees -- you get what is commonly referred to as “buy in.” The instructors have a stake in the outcome. They know that in a few months time, when their instructor rotation is over, they will be returning to the control room floor where they will have to work with that trainee. They know that their career might depend on how well that trainee is able to do the job. It’s tends to improve “quality control.”

The last area I will address is the maintenance side of the FAA. There are many justifications for keeping maintenance of the FAA’s infrastructure in-house but none are more important -- or as intangible -- as the level of commitment and dedication the FAA’s technicians bring to the job. Being “in-house”, they see firsthand the troubles and dangers that come about when a system fails. They see the controllers sweating bullets when the radio or radar goes out. They see the chaos that erupts when a computer quits or the power fails. Even something as simple as talking shop with controllers on their breaks brings a deeper understanding of just how critical their job is. It not only brings a level of commitment to the job that a private contractor can’t match, it brings with it a sense of pride too. That commitment and sense of pride has real value. Do I need to remind you of the Southwest inspection scandal to convince you ?

I sense that the era of blind faith in the superiority of business is over. I hope so. Private industry certainly has its place in our society. But so too does government. Every citizen should want their government to be the best it can be. Demonizing the government will not make it better. Only hard work and constant vigilance will. Government needs to work and indiscriminate contracting out of government is a recipe for disaster. This experiment of contracting it out has failed and it is time to begin cleaning it up. Before our aviation system suffers the same fate as our financial system.

Don Brown
September 26, 2008

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