Wednesday, April 30, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- April 30



From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Apr 30, 1975: The Secretary's Task Force on the FAA Safety Mission (see Jan 28, 1975) submitted its report. The Task Force commended FAA for having reestablished a no-fault aviation safety reporting program (see Apr 8, 1975), and made recommendations including:

* That FAA should continue to rely on industry for safety compliance inspections required in the certification process, but should strengthen its technical staff and improve its ability to monitor the performance of those delegated safety responsibilities. In addition, FAA should insist on more comprehensive design reviews in major aircraft and engine certification.

* That FAA should conduct audits in cooperation with the National Transportation Safety Board to ensure that problems cited by NTSB were worked out satisfactorily.

* That FAA's rulemaking process, judged too slow, should be expedited by means of a priority system; the agency should also improve the clarity of the rules themselves and speed up their legal review. * That FAA should take steps, including use of flight data monitoring systems, to improve aircrew performance.

* That air traffic controllers should give more attention to preventing collision with the ground, and that a standing group of FAA and aviation community representatives should review air traffic control procedures with the aim of increasing clarity and standardization.

* That FAA should continue as part of the Department of Transportation, but should not be subject to undue supervision by the Office of the Secretary.

* That an intensive review should be made of the FAA headquarters organization with the object of reducing the number of elements reporting to the Administrator. The task force recommended also that (1) a similar study be made of the FAA regional organization, with a view to consolidating regional functions and reducing the regions in number, and (2) that regional Engineering and Manufacturing (E & M) personnel engaged in aircraft certification be transferred from the regions to one or more E & M technical field centers that would report to FAA Headquarters at a level just below the Administrator.

* That FAA should strengthen its long-range research and development activity and establish one or more technical advisory committees. “


Don Brown
April 30, 2008

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Time Too



The pressure on the FAA just keeps on building. They managed to make Time magazine this week.

Air Traffic Controller Sounds Alarm

With air traffic controllers having operated for more than 600 days without a new contract from the FAA, morale among them is at an all-time low, and with just 11,100 fully trained professionals serving the entire country — the smallest number in 16 years — a combination of fatigue and frustration is laying a dangerous groundwork.

Because of the cover up at DFW, a lot of incidents across the entire country are under review by more people than would normally review them. And sooner or later, an incident is going to come across the desk of somebody that hasn’t partaken of the FAA kool-aid. Or, more likely, somebody will blow the whistle on others before others can blow the whistle on them. The phrase “no honor among thieves” comes to mind. Perhaps one of my mother’s favorite sayings fits better: “Be sure your sins will find you out.”

The truth always comes out -- sooner or later. Better that it come out sooner -- rather than after an accident.

Don Brown
April 29, 2008

Monday, April 28, 2008

FAA ReAuthorization -- Action Required



Attention All Regular Readers

Read it, sign it, send it. Today.

Bring S1300 to the Senate floor and vote YES!!!

That is all.

Don Brown
April 28, 2008

Connected Dots



I got an e-mail from John at the Aviation Mentor pointing me towards a post about secondary airports he had written at the end of last year. You see, he reads James Fallows’ blog like I read James Fallows’ blog, and James Fallows had read my blog, which means the Aviation Mentor read my blog and now I read his blog. I’m lost now too but somehow we’re all talking about VLJs (Very Light Jets) and how they are going to work in the National Airspace System.

Read this -- Three Kinds of Lies -- and you’ll be connected too.

(Switch subjects...) I liked John’s latest post on “T-routes” -- How Low Can You Go ? We appear to be kindred spirits from opposite sides of the microphone.

”You may be wondering why these new MEAs are called "GNSS MEAs" (Jeppesen uses the term "GPS MEA"). GNSS is an international standard and the U.S. GPS/WAAS is just one implementation of that standard, or at least it will be when all the international requirements are met. As we used to say in the software world - "The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them." “

Not only standards, but databases too. I’ve never figured out why URET uses the Jeppsen database instead of the FAA’s own database. But now we’re getting way off into geek-land. If you know what an MEA is, you might want to check out his site. You’ll learn something.

Don Brown
April 28, 2008

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Not Quite Free Flight



The May edition of The Atlantic is out and my cyber-friend James Fallows has an interesting article in it.

Taxis in the Sky

As I’ve mentioned before, Mr. Fallows uses the term “Free Flight” on occasion. As a matter of fact, he wrote a book with the term in its title -- Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Travel. (Unfortunately, I haven’t read it yet.) The term “Free Flight” means different things to different people. As far as Mr. Fallows’ current article goes, I don’t have any argument with his use of the term.

The article explains the complex interaction between emerging technologies that hold the promise of this new form of transportation. I’m not convinced that the market for Very Light Jets (VLJs) is as extensive as its proponents would like it to be but Mr. Fallows presents a convincing case for their use as air taxis. It’s an interesting article and well worth your time.

I would like comment on the apparent absence of one element though -- Air Traffic Control. The article makes clear that the company highlighted -- DayJet -- has examined the business in incredible detail. As an example:

”The answer involves an odd assemblage of talents and disciplines that includes American computer scientists who call their specialty “ant farming”; Russian mathematical prodigies who made their way from Minsk and Moscow to Florida, via Jerusalem; Internet-business pioneers; and, yes, pilots and maintenance experts and dispatchers, including many refugees or retirees from the troubled airlines. Plus Bruce Holmes himself, who joined the company a year ago, after NASA radically cut back its airplane-related activities to shift its resources to space exploration. “

To me -- an ex-air traffic controller -- the absence is glaring. It seems to me that a company that will interact with air traffic control on a daily basis would have covered this base. Perhaps they have. But it’s been my experience that other businesses haven’t. From companies relocating their flight departments to governments choosing a location for a new airport -- it seems as if little (if any) thought has been given to air traffic control considerations.

Don Brown
April 25, 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

Still Incompetent



Every once in a while, you read something that just sticks with you. It happened when I read Thomas Oliphant’s recent book, “Utter Incompetents”. The central theme of the book is that -- like him or hate him -- the Bush Administration’s term has been marked by incompetence. This edited quote provides a good example:

”Another reason the Dubai (Dubai Ports World) deal fiasco is such a perfect metaphor is that it doesn’t matter what your views on the merits of the issue are. You can believe that it was perfectly straightforward commercial transaction... You can believe it was probably a sensible transaction but deserved very careful scrutiny... Or you can believe that in this new and dangerous environment it is simply not prudent...

It doesn’t matter. Whatever your point of view, Bush’s handling of this mess was inept from start to finish, the real reason it ultimately collapsed.“


That thought -- implanted by Mr. Oliphant’s book -- was brought back to the surface today when I read this story from The Washington Post.

Bush Plan To Contract Federal Jobs Falls Short -- Scope and Savings Have Not Met Goals

”"The competitive sourcing initiative did little to improve management, produced a ton of worthless paper, demoralized thousands of workers and cost a bundle, all to prove that federal employees are pretty good after all," said Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “

In short, President Bush took what was a Clinton program (remember Al Gore’s Reinventing Government ?), tossed in a strong dose of ideology, mixed it with a lethal dose of incompetence and failed to accomplish anything. Except for ruining the lives of more U.S. citizens of course.

Continuing in the vein of Mr. Oliphant’s book, even if you agree with the ideology (and I most definitely do not) you have to cringe at the incompetence. Because the program was handled so poorly, it will prove to be politically difficult to continue or expand the program in the future should anyone desire to. It has a proven track record -- Bush’s track record -- of not working.

Obviously, President Bush doesn’t run the government by himself. It’s in this area -- when you delve into it -- that shows his incompetence. Here’s a trick I use whenever I read an article on-line and you can use it too. A Mr. Clay Johnson III is mentioned in the article. So I looked him up on Wikipedia.

Clay Johnson III is the Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget at the White House.

Prior to becoming OMB Deputy Director, he was the Assistant to the President for Presidential Personnel. He has served President Bush since his tenure as Governor of Texas, achieving the rank of Chief of Staff prior to leading the Bush-Cheney presidential transition. “


A hand-picked political appointee. You might want to lay the blame for the program at his feet but President Bush still picked him.

In the comments section of the article, another name popped up -- David Safavian. So, I looked him up.

David Hossein Safavian (born August 4, 1967) is a former chief of staff of the United States General Services Administration (GSA) and a figure in the Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption scandal. In 2004, he was an employee of the Office of Management and Budget. He was arrested and charged with crimes in connection with the Abramoff corruption scandal. He was convicted and, on October 27, 2006, sentenced to 18 months in prison. “

“In 1997, Safavian and Grover Norquist founded a lobbying firm, the Merritt Group, which was renamed Janus-Merritt Strategies (and is sometimes referred to as "Janus Merritt" or simply "Janus"). The tenor of the firm was fiercely ideological. "We represent clients who really do have an interest in a smaller federal government," Safavian told Legal Times in a 1997 interview. "We're all very ideologically driven, and have a bias in favor of free markets." He went on: "We're not letting people who offer us money change our principles."”


Time and time again you find people with the “correct” political ideology in the Bush Administration failing to administrate effectively. Ideology trumped competency. The damage that has been done is colossal.

Those of us in aviation don’t have to look any further than the contracting out of the FAA’s Flight Service Stations to know that the true agenda was ideology as opposed to a matter of practical governance. The contracting out of FSS has been a disaster no matter how you look at it. One of the supposed tests for determining whether to contract out a job is called “the Yellow Book test.” If you can find a job in the yellow pages of the phone book it might be a candidate for outsourcing. You won’t find a listing for Flight Service Specialists in the Yellow Book. You will find a listing for secretaries. The FAA never contracted out the secretaries. Just the FSS controllers.

I wasn’t contracted out and I (for one) won’t forget it. Imagine how the people that were contracted out feel about it. How would you feel if your pension was sacrificed on the altar of someone’s political ideology ? Even worse, it becomes clearer every day that the ideology was ineffective -- administered by people that were incompetent at best and criminal at worst. Do you think they’ll vote Republican ?

Civil Service, mine safety, port security, mortgage lending, Iraq, New Orleans. Incredibly diverse issues all bound together by a common thread -- an incompetent Administration.

Don Brown
April 25, 2008

Runway Headline



Runway incursions have reached the top. Front page of The New York Times -- first story. (Please note that it’s written by the reporter I’ve mentioned several times -- Matthew Wald.)

For Airlines, Runways Are the Danger Zone

”But what really worries aviation specialists? Runway collisions. “

It’s true. I was having a conversation with an airline-pilot friend just yesterday. We agreed that the next major accident would most likely be caused by a runway incursion. I went on to say, “But (I’m a safety guy, I’ve always got a “but”) it could be anything -- anywhere.

That’s the problem (if you can call it that) with a system as safe as ours -- you just don’t really know where the next “big one” will be. All you can do is look at the data -- searching for trends. Which is the reason yesterday’s story in The Washington Post was important.

”Federal Aviation Administration managers covered up mistakes by air traffic controllers at a Texas facility, making it more difficult for authorities to detect safety hazards in some of the nation's busiest airspace, FAA officials disclosed yesterday. “

GIGO -- Garbage In, Garbage Out. We must have good data in order to come up with good policy decisions. That might remind you of the lack of commitment the FAA has shown in collecting good data. Remember I provided these quotes from Air Safety Week ?

””The White House announcement rings hollow, especially given FAA declarations about the need for "data-driven" safety programs. ASRS is a primary source of precisely such incident data. “

” As an appalling illustration of the impact of budget cuts, of some 35,000 ASRS incident reports received annually, only about 30 percent wind up in the data base. The staff cannot handle them all, so must decide which of the reports are the most worthy of keeping. “

Another subtext in this post is the fact that aviation safety is in the headlines of major publications. It has been my (limited) experience -- since I retired and I am able to track the news more closely -- that reporters and editors have a developed sense for what will become news. There is something out there that is about to break open and they are trying to get ahead of it. The sharks smell blood in the water and they are circling -- searching for its source.

Don Brown
April 25, 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Google Finance



I was monkeying around with some charts at Google Finance and thought -- you might not know about Google Finance. I don’t know much about money but it’s fun to play around with it anyway.

You can make interesting charts with it.



LUV -- Southwest Airlines
DAL -- Delta Airlines
AMR -- American Airlines
NWA -- Northwest Airlines

You can even provide a link to the chart so others can monkey around with it.

Maybe the guys at Google can teach the airlines how to make money by giving away stuff.

Don Brown
April 24, 2008

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bittersweet Goodbyes



I’m always a little hesitant to send you over to read Garrison Keillor’s stuff. It’s not that he’s bad or anything -- he’s brilliant. But I know that he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and his subjects tend to be a little off base for my readers. But today, I can send you over there with a clear conscience.

Singing the Delta Blues

That’s as in Delta Airlines blues. Garrison mourns the possible passing of Northwest Airlines. It’s odd, in that this sounds just like Atlanta’s hometown airline -- Delta.

” The company was founded by romantics, men who loved aviation, and in 1989 it fell into the hands of rapacious bandits who ate its heart and plunged it headlong into debt and could be as cruel to employees as any other big union-busting corporation. “

I don’t remember exactly which year it was that Delta crossed the line -- but it did. It went from being the pride of Atlanta to just another big business with no soul. Just another casualty in the war of attrition that we called airline deregulation.

Delta’s proposed merger won’t solve anything for anybody. A friend of mine asked me just tonight to explain how any company can lose $6 billion dollars and still be viable. There is no explaining it. It can’t. The only winners in all this will be the lawyers, thieves and bankers. And I’m not too sure about the bankers.

I don’t know how long we will continue to suffer this self-inflicted misery. It pains me to point out that Jimmy Carter signed off on this mess. I think history will be much kinder to President Carter than this current generation but that is another story. The point is that I believe airline deregulation was a mistake. It’s a mistake that we can correct. And the sooner -- the better.

Don Brown
April 23, 2008

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Public Pressure



It’s amazing what a little public pressure can do.

From Aviation Week:

FAA Bill Could See Senate Vote Soon

”The intense public scrutiny FAA is receiving over the aircraft inspection issue has convinced senior Democrats they can’t leave the FAA bill sitting on the backburner.“

The reporter is about as right as he can get in such a short story.

”The key obstacle preventing the FAA bill reaching the Senate floor for a vote is a clause requiring a $25 user fee for airspace users to fund ATC modernization.“

The bigger issue for controllers in the language in the House version of the bill that should get them back to the bargaining table. President Bush (of course) has threatened to veto the bill. Pretty interesting in that it hasn’t even made it out of the Senate aviation subcommittee.

It will be interesting to watch the three Presidential candidates -- all three are Senators -- on this one.

Don Brown
April 22, 2008

Safety What ?



Here’s the “headline” for the day:

FAA Names Robert Tarter Head of Air Traffic Organization Safety

Who ? To what ?

”General Tarter's distinguished military career combined with his experience as an airline pilot and safety professional brings extraordinary capability to our ranks," said Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell... “

(yaaaaaaawn) Yeah, yeah, whatever. Somebody wake me up when the FAA wakes up. Another ex-military guy and airline pilot to tell civilian air traffic controllers how it’s supposed to be done. Good luck with that.

No offense to General Tarter -- he might be the nicest, most talented general in the world for all I know. And I don’t know. I’ve never heard of him. I searched around the ‘net to see who he was replacing -- to see how many different people have held the position since the Air Traffic Organization was formed in the FAA -- but quickly gave up. I seem to remember some admiral being in charge of safety back when I was working.

Somewhere between making headlines and improving safety at the air traffic controller level...whatever it is these guys do just slips away into the quagmire that is FAA management culture. Controllers won’t even notice when he reports for duty -- or when he leaves. Pretty sad for an outfit where “safety” is supposedly job one.

Don Brown
April 22, 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- April 21



From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Apr 21, 1958: An Air Force jet fighter collided with a United Air Lines DC-7 near Las Vegas, Nev., killing both occupants of the fighter and all 47 persons aboard the airliner. Another midair collision between a military jet and an airliner occurred on May 20 when a T-33 trainer and a Capital Airlines Viscount collided over Brunswick, Md. This second accident cost the lives of one of the two persons aboard the T-33 and all 11 aboard the Viscount. The twin tragedies spurred governmental action already underway to improve air traffic control and to establish a comprehensive Federal Aviation Agency. (See May 21 and May 28, 1958.) “

You’ll see a lot of the 50-year-anniversary stories this year. As noted above, there will most likely be another on May 20th. That one, today’s and the Grand Canyon mid-air collision in 1956 make “the big three” that finally motivated the Federal Government to create a National Airspace System unified under civilian control -- the FAA.

I found a story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on the event this weekend and I think it’s worth your time. I hope you’ll note that the people interviewed don’t talk about government policy -- they talk of the loved ones lost. Even after 50 years. That is what makes policy important -- the impact it has on plain, ordinary people. Just like you and me.

Don Brown
April 21, 2008

Speaking of Bob...



Trust me. The fact that I brought up his name this weekend was just plain, dumb luck. But I’ll take it. In today’s New York Times you will find a very good editorial from none other than Bob Crandall, the ex-CEO of American Airlines. I agree with about 90% of it so I won’t quibble about the other 10% right now. It’s just nice to see somebody finally talking good sense.

Charge More, Merge Less, Fly Better

Don Brown
April 21, 2008

Sunday, April 20, 2008

India Looks to FAA



Under the heading of “things could get worse.”

We’d best hope ATC doesn’t get contracted out to India.

Mayday! ATC shortage spells turbulence

Don Brown
April 20, 2008

One Other Thing



There is always one other thing when you write a blog. I was just reminded when I was visiting one of the aviation BBSes that I frequent. In my blog entry “There You Go Again”, one of the writers of the Wall Street Journal editorial I discussed was Robert W. Crandall.

Someone else made the same bad assumption that I had made, that Robert Crandall was Bob Crandall, the ex-CEO of American Airlines. Not so.

Robert W. Crandall of the Brookings Institution “focuses on telecommunications regulatory policy. “

Robert Lloyd Crandall of American Airlines focused on crushing his competition.

My favorite story about Bob Crandall (of American Airlines) came from Thomas Petzinger’s book “Hard Landing.” The scene was a Congressional hearing on deregulating the airline industry in 1977. At the end of the day’s hearing, some unknown guy walked up to the staffers that were spearheading deregulation and said...

”You %$#&ing academic eggheads ! You’re going to wreck this industry !”

...then turned around and left. Neither knew who it was. Allegedly, it was Bob Crandall -- then head of marketing for American.

It turns out he was right. Despite that, he did what he had to do to ensure American Airlines’ survival. American is now the largest airline in the world. At least until the next merger.

Don Brown
April 20, 2008

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Back to Books





Some of you may have noticed that I don’t talk about the books I’ve been reading as much as used to. I still read them. I just stopped writing about them. I’ve pondered the implications of letting any hint of commercialism on my blog and I’ve finally decided I can live with it.

Don’t worry, I don’t believe it will change my outlook and I don’t intend to let it influence my writing. For now at least, I intend to limit it to my book-reading interest. In that there aren’t many books about air traffic control safety (you would think I’d take the hint) I don’t believe I’ll run across any ethical problems. I know you might not worry about my ethics (at least I hope you don’t) but I do.

Anyway, before I blather on too much, just be advised -- any links to book titles you see in the future will take you to Amazon. I’ll slowly but surely go back through my blog and change any previous links. I hope that won’t make anybody crazy with the RSS feeds.

I’d like to thank the readers that allowed me to poll them about this change to my blog. It was kind of you to give me some of your time and share your opinions. I appreciate it.

Don Brown
April 19, 2008

There You Go Again



Perhaps it is a pathological ignorance -- it certainly seems to be contagious.

”The last crash of a commercial jet occurred in November 2001... “

That is a quote from yet another editorial in The Wall Street Journal on the subject of aviation safety. Maybe I’m just stupid and can’t understand the English language. “Last” -- “crash” -- “commercial” -- “jet” -- “November 2001.” Am I missing something ?

From Wikipedia:

Comair Flight 191, or Delta Air Lines Flight 5191, was a scheduled U.S. domestic passenger flight from Lexington, Kentucky, to Atlanta, Georgia, operated on behalf of Delta Connection by Comair. On the morning of August 27, 2006, the Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet that was being used for the flight crashed while attempting to take off from Blue Grass Airport in Fayette County, Kentucky, four miles (6 kilometers) west of the central business district of the City of Lexington. “

Again, am I missing something ? Wasn’t Comair 191 a “crash” involving a “commercial jet” ? 2006 was after 2001 wasn’t it ? Supposedly these guys did some research. It says so right in the editorial.

”In our research on the subject, examining available empirical evidence, we could not find any discernible improvement in safety that was associated with regulations...

I wonder how they missed the crash of Southwest 1248 ? Granted, Chalk 101 wasn’t a jet and Pinnacle 3701 wasn’t carrying any passengers but they were still “commercial” and they still “crashed.” I somehow think that the loved ones of the 34 people who died aboard American Connection 5966 and U.S. Air Express 5481 find the fact that they were not on a “jet” relevant.

Perhaps the authors were too busy researching regulations -- instead of safety -- to find all those. Let me point the way for future researchers. PlaneCrashInfo.com is a super site for quick research. It’s obviously a labor of love. Maybe the Brookings Institution and the Wall Street Journal are thrown off by the site’s lack of commercialism. You needn’t be. I’ve been using it for years without any ill effects.

But back to the subject at hand. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted by this editorial. I seriously don’t know if the authors are trying to twist the truth or if they are just that ignorant about the subject -- or think the rest of us are.

The crash referred to in the opening paragraph of the editorial was American Airlines flight 587. The tail snapped off when the pilot made some “aggressive” control inputs after encountering wake turbulence. Halfway through the editorial you read, “Of course, American Airlines and other carriers hardly need the FAA to tell them how to operate their $50 million MD-80s safely.” What’s the logic of that statement ? American Airlines can have an accident with an Airbus 300-600 but not an MD-80 ? Is it a misunderstanding of the respective roles the FAA and the airlines play in aviation safety or a deliberate attempt to confuse those roles in the public’s mind ?

If this editorial is about aviation safety -- the title is “Airlines Are Safer Than Ever“ -- it misses the mark. Badly. It appears to me that it’s just another excuse to bash Congressman James Oberstar’s oversight of the aviation industry in an attempt to head off any regulation that might hobble the WSJ editorial board’s sacred cow -- “the free market.”

See if this line of thought helps illuminate the subject.

There hasn’t been a mid-air collision involving a commercial jet in the United States since August 31, 1986. That in no way should make you believe that our air traffic control system is the safest it has ever been. Safety is not defined by a lack of accidents so much as it is a measure of risk. There is always the possibility of a “freak” accident in a very safe period just as there is “good luck” during an unsafe period.

The “safest period in aviation history” was on September 12, 2001 when all commercial flights were grounded after the terrorist attacks. Everything before and since has been riskier. Make no mistake about it, commercial air travel is incredibly safe. It’s maintaining that level of safety that is important. The way to do that is by monitoring and evaluating the risks. Every person involved in air traffic control realizes that experience counts and that the experience level of the ATC workforce is declining. That doesn’t mean it is unsafe. It means that we should be vigilant and should be prepared to implement programs to mitigate unacceptable risks.

The best example to demonstrate the difference between no accidents and measuring risk is a couple of videos I’ve pointed you to before. The lack of an accident when two airliners miss by 37 feet is not an indication that the system is safe. It is most definitely a sign that the level of risk may have risen to an unacceptable level. That fact that there were two such incidents -- on opposite sides of the country no less -- is an indication that these weren’t “freak” incidents (bordering on accidents) and that we have a problem we need to address before it causes an accident.

There is one other thing to note in that line of thought. If either of those two incidents had been an accident -- if they had hit -- I’d still be able to say there hasn’t been a mid-air collision involving a commercial airliner in the United States since August 31, 1986. And it would still be an empty, irrelevant and misleading statement on which to base an opinion of the safety of our current aviation system.

Don Brown
April 19, 2008

Friday, April 18, 2008

Press Alert



If you’re a member of the Press (and I know you’re out there), you need to run over to The FAA Follies and file today’s blog away some place safe. Trust me, you’ll need it sometime down the road. The guys at the Follies are still on the inside -- working for the FAA -- and they will have a better sense of how the program is going than I will.

The story is about ERAM. I told you to keep your eyes open for this program on February 18. I can not overstate the importance of this program as far as air traffic control. This is the Big One, the Whole Kit and Kaboddle, the Alpha and Omega. Unfortunately, it is going to be real difficult for most of the Press to understand the significance -- much less explain it to John Q. Public. But that is what the Press does and I have faith that they will find a way.

Let me try out what I am sure will be one of a long line of imperfect analogies. The FAA -- through Lockheed Martin -- is trying replicate the Great Pyramid of Giza. Obviously, we now have better engineering and equipment so the task ought to be easier. But what we don’t have is the lessons learned from the mistakes. Think about how old the pyramid is and how little was known about the principles of engineering when it was built. I’m sure lots of lessons were learned from mistakes but we don’t know what those mistakes were. We just have the final product -- the pyramid -- and we know that it can be done.

The program that runs the air traffic control system now is a lot like that. It was written back in the infancy of software engineering. I’ll make the assumption that the software guys are schooled in the “ancient” principles of software design (probably a really bad assumption) and can figure out the logic of the code. But I assure you, they aren’t schooled in the “ancient” principles of air traffic control. And the kicker is, neither are most air traffic controllers. The logic of that will be mysterious indeed.

Think back to the days before computers and before radar. You have to take the information for every single flight -- the route of flight, the altitude, the speed, the type aircraft, etc. -- and transmit that information along the entire route of flight of the aircraft. Any change to that information -- a different altitude, a route deviation, a speed change, etc. -- has to be transmitted in real time. It has to be done with precision.

How much precision ? Let’s look at just one factor -- speed. Back in the day when all aircraft were required to be on fixed routes -- airways -- you separated aircraft at the points where the routes crossed -- intersections. Crossing aircraft at the same altitude were separated by time -- 10 minutes. The speed of an aircraft as measured across the ground changes constantly due to the winds changing constantly. Thus, the time an aircraft was supposed to pass over a particular fix (say an intersection) was always referred to as an estimate. Cessna 12345 is estimated to cross the MULBE intersection at 12:13.

Remember, we’re just dealing with precision right now. We’ve already demonstrated that we are limiting the precision. We don’t say the aircraft is estimated over MULBE at 12:13 and 17 seconds, or 45 seconds. We limit our precision to one minute. If that were indeed the case, every time the aircraft was one minute late or one minute early over the fix, we would have to recalculate -- and communicate -- a revision to the estimate for the next fix. Remember, this is without radar or computers. Back in the day, revisions to the estimates were communicated via telephone. “N12345, revised estimate, estimating STAIN intersection at 12:36.” That would be a lot of telephone calls. So after some trial and error, some real-world experience and some calculations, the requirement for passing a revised estimate was set at 3 minutes -- early or late.

==============

2-2-6. IFR FLIGHT PROGRESS DATA

”b. Forward position report over last reporting point in the transferring facility's area if any of the following conditions exist:

1. Time differs more than 3 minutes from estimate given. “


==============


A programmer needs to ask himself a question, “Why 3 minutes ?” The fundamental objective is to separate airplanes -- not limit the number of telephone calls made.

Telephone calls aren’t even made any more. In my day, revised estimates were sent by computer. If someone put the wrong speed into the computer you’d get 3, 4 or 5 time updates via the computer and you would know to look for a erroneous speed entry. And you would fuss about somebody not catching the error because all the time updates were distracting you from your duties -- separating airplanes. With the implementation of URET, the computer no longer sent time update messages to the controller. The computer just updated the revised time automatically. So nobody noticed overdue aircraft anymore. “Losing” an airplane is considered bad form in air traffic control. Pilots tend to frown on it also -- when they crash, nobody notices an overdue aircraft and, therefore, we fail to start search and rescue operations.

Mercy. I hadn’t planned to go this far afield when I started this post. I just wanted to give you a glimpse of how complicated this business is and just how complicated a computer program to accomplish it all will be. Just one tiny area -- the precision with which we calculate the speed of an aircraft across the ground -- has dozens of implications and pitfalls. But the real challenge will be designing the system to handle the aircraft when the ERAM program crashes. That is the reason the 3-minute-revised-estimate rule is still in the controller’s handbook. Computer programs, on occasion, crash. When they do, controllers still have to separate the airplanes. Computer or no computer, radar or no radar.

Think about that while you watch this. If your computer freezes or crashes during the video, be assured, the airplanes keep moving at few hundred miles per hour and every, single one of them has people on board. Somebody has to ensure that they stay separated.

Don Brown
April 18, 2008

Thursday, April 17, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- April 17



From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Apr 17, 1978: National Weather Service meteorologists began working at 13 of FAA's Air Route Traffic Control Centers under a recently signed agreement between the two agencies. At each of those centers, a team of three NWS meteorologists provided information on hazardous weather throughout the day to center controllers, as well as to FAA towers and flight service stations. FAA provided each center with new equipment for receiving data from NWS weather radar and satellites. This new program was part of a general effort to provide pilots with more en route weather information, since the lack of accurate knowledge of hazardous weather, particularly thunderstorms, had been found responsible for several air crashes (see May 19, 1977). NWS meteorologists were already on duty at FAA's national flow control center in Washington, and by Nov 1980 they were stationed at all U.S. mainland en route centers. “

Unfortunately, the FAA’s reputation as “The Tombstone Agency” is well-deserved. This is just another example. I might as well show you this trick. You might want to do some research on your own one day. It’s really simple. Take the date, April 17, 1978, and start reading backwards -- until you find the appropriate accident.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Apr 4, 1977: A Southern Airways DC-9 crashed near New Hope, Ga. The pilot attempted an emergency landing on a highway, but the aircraft broke apart and caught fire. The accident killed 62 of the 85 persons aboard, as well as 8 persons on the ground. In addition, one passenger and one person injured on the ground died about a month later. The National Transportation Safety Board cited the probable cause of the crash as the total and unique loss of thrust after the engines ingested massive amounts of water and hail as the aircraft penetrated an area of severe thunderstorms. As contributory causes, the NTSB listed: failure of the airline's dispatch system to provide up-to-date severe weather data; the captain's reliance on airborne weather radar to enter a thunderstorm area; and FAA's lack of a system for disseminating real-time hazardous weather warnings. (See May 19, 1977.) “

You might think we all learned our lesson -- and to some degree we did. But if we were all honest, we’d know there was more to learn -- and still lessons left unlearned.

”NWS meteorologists were already on duty at FAA's national flow control center... “

It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to figure out the FAA was willing to spend the money for capacity (that is what flow control does) but not safety.

” As contributory causes, the NTSB listed: failure of the airline's dispatch system to provide up-to-date severe weather data...“

Anyone who has ever bothered to listen to an airline dispatcher knows that they spend a lot of time filing routes that keep their airplanes out of the severe weather. Just as those that listen to them know that “flow control” will destroy that careful planning by assigning reroutes that take care of the immediate weather (around the airport) at the expense of the weather down the road.

The FAA currently has a great weather display on the controller’s radar displays at the Centers. Unfortunately, they haven’t spent the money to train the controllers on how to interpret what they see and how to use it effectively. Which is the reason guys like me write things like this.

The National Weather Service meteorologists could really help out in the interpretation department. They do (and have) to some degree. They are occasionally allowed to conduct educational type briefings for controllers. Much more daily interaction with controllers -- providing real-time interpretation of thunderstorms -- would be very educational for all. Unfortunately, the NWS guys are distracted, fighting for their jobs too. The powers that be (I think the NWS but maybe the FAA) want to take them out of the Centers and put them all in a central location. You can guess what the motivation is because you already know it isn’t safety.

Don Brown
April 17, 2008

Southern Airways 242

The Wrong Message



This morning, I sent my son a story I was reading at The New York Times web site.

Wall Street Winners Get Billion-Dollar Paydays

Specifically, I pointed out this part:

” Mr. Simon, a mathematician and former Defense Department code breaker who uses complex computer models to trade, earned $2.8 billion. “

Some of you might remember, my son is pretty good with math. (No, sadly/gladly he didn’t make MIT.) I sent him the blurb about Mr. Simon to pique his interest. I’ve always thought my son would have a knack for codes. Of course, I’ve always thought my daughter would make a great lawyer so what do I know ?

I chewed on this story for most of the day. It kept nagging me. Especially this part...

”One manager, John Paulson, made $3.7 billion last year. He reaped that bounty, probably the richest in Wall Street history, by betting against certain mortgages and complex financial products that held them.“

...with this part added in.

”“There is nothing wrong with it — it’s not illegal,” said William H. Gross, the chief investment officer of the bond fund Pimco. “But it’s ugly.” “

Illegal and wrong are two different things. But Mr. Gross is right about one thing -- it is ugly. I chewed on it some more -- and even more -- when I listened to the same story on Marketplace while driving down the road.

”Paulson made his money investing in complex bets against the subprime mortgage market. When these mortgages defaulted last year, Paulson's funds rose as much as 600 percent, and like most hedge fund managers, he pocketed 20 percent of that. Paul Dorf, at Compensation Resources, endorses multimillion dollar packages for corporate executives, but billions makes even him outraged.

PAUL DORF: It doesn't look kosher, particularly if you dig into what they're making their money on.

He says most of the funds making huge profits . . .

DORF: Are betting on commodity prices for oil, the fact that banks are going to fail. “


I’m slow but I finally caught on to what was bothering me. The richest -- and brightest -- guys in America are making their money off of misery. Perhaps it was the previous segment on the radio that pointed out the price of rice (a “commodity”) has doubled in the last few months. Perhaps it was the thought passing through my head that the bright guys were selling mortgages they knew were bad risks, knowing that they could hedge (that’s where the term hedge fund comes from) their bets and make even more. Sort of a “heads I win, tails you lose” proposition. It’s spooky to think that all that might not be illegal.

What makes it wrong is the fact that they didn’t tell anybody. If the best and brightest believed the subprime market was going to go bust -- if they were so sure that they were willing to bet billions on it -- why didn’t they warn anybody ? Too busy making money ?

As this thought occurred to me, I saw my friend Powell pull up, so I hopped out of the truck to talk to him. Powell has been around a few years longer than I have. As I was explaining that these guys were getting rich by betting on the subprime market going bust, it took him about two seconds to figure it out. “Don’t you think they should have warned the rest of us ? That’s just wrong.” I hate it when that happens. Somebody just spits out the right answer on something I’ve been chewing on all day.

I wish I had thought fast enough to keep from sending my son the wrong message. There’s nothing wrong with getting rich. It’s getting greedy that makes it wrong.

Don Brown
April 17, 2008

P.S. For those interested, here’s an interesting story I found while researching this piece. A few people actually have been trying to warn us.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- April 16



From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Oct 1, 1926: Northwest Airways began service as a contract mail carrier. The company began passenger service the following year, and expanded its routes in the late twenties and early thirties, changing its name to Northwest Airlines on Apr 16, 1934. Further expansion included routes to Asia, beginning in the 1940s, and for a time the carrier used the name Northwest Orient Airlines. “

(emphasis added)

I haven’t delved into the proposed merger between Northwest and Delta yet so I really don’t have any comment. I just thought it ironic.

Don Brown
April 16, 2008

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Judgment Day



There was a particularly nasty editorial in the Wall Street Journal last Friday. I try not to call attention to the WSJ, especially since Rupert Murdoch bought them. But then I thought, it’s that kind of thinking that got us into this mess.

In short, the editorial was an attack on James Oberstar, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The Wall Street Journal editorial board pitted their credibility against Chairman Oberstar's --about aviation safety no less. That would be hilarious if we had a well-informed electorate. Unfortunately -- when it comes to aviation safety -- we don’t.

I’ve followed Chairman Oberstar’s career for years and years. At least 25 years of which I was an air traffic controller. I haven’t followed it closely, only as it pertains to aviation. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he knows aviation. His knowledge is encyclopedic. He can recite the history from present day all the way back to when we used bonfires as beacons. I’ve watched him do it -- spontaneously and from memory. That seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through for a guy “whose real goal is to augment Washington's power vis-a-vis industry.

The Bush Administration has -- once again -- been caught gutting the regulatory power of the U.S. Government to promote the well being of private industry at the expense of the public’s welfare and safety. The WSJ editorial board -- once again -- has used its clout to cloud the issue and promote the cause of private industry at the expense of the public.

We can’t be experts in all fields of human endeavor. Nor even all things in the government’s sphere. Everyone one of us, at some point -- at many points -- must entrust our welfare to the judgment of others. For my part -- as someone that knows a little something about aviation safety -- I trust James Oberstar’s judgment.

As for the Wall Street Journal editorial board, take a good look at them . Take a look at their record. Take a look at their owner.

”There's no better regulator than a competitive marketplace.”

Really ? Let’s take a look at “Wall Street” itself. We’re in the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression and it is a direct result of the dismantling of the regulatory framework put in place after the Depression. It was all accomplished by the Bush Administration and a Republican Congress with the WSJ editorial board cheerleading the entire time.

Chairman Oberstar’s oversight lead to finding the cracks in the airplanes before they became a problem. If only the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board had used their power as wisely -- and pointed out the cracks in our financial system before they turned into a disaster.

Don Brown
April 15, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pan-Pan...Pan-Pan...Pan-Pan



If you aren’t involved in aviation, you probably don’t recognize the significance of those words. Likewise, for those not in aviation, you might not realize that Bobby Sturgell -- the Bush Administration’s nominee for FAA Administrator -- is in such trouble he might need to utter the phrase.

10-1-1. EMERGENCY DETERMINATIONS

”b. A pilot who encounters a Distress condition should declare an emergency by beginning the initial communication with the word "Mayday," preferably repeated three times. For an Urgency condition, the word "Pan-Pan" should be used in the same manner. “

It’s Monday morning. After a weekend for the furor to calm down -- it hasn’t. When you’re an acting Administrator and two Senators have a “hold” on your nomination to become the Administrator, the last thing you need to see is this:

”Business Travel Coalition called on President Bush for the immediate removal of FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell, and to consider the removal of other top FAA officials...“

Bear in mind, the Business Travel Coalition isn’t some wild-eyed union guys. As far as I can tell, they aren’t even part of the “liberal media.” As a matter of fact, it looks like they are the bread and butter of the Bush Administration’s supporters -- a coalition of business people.

As a further sign of just how far the worm has turned, even the Charlotte Observer had a negative piece.

”Of course, the FAA says all is well, that those of us on those largely uninspected planes were safe. Right.“

When you start losing conservative, Southern newspapers (is there any other kind ?), things are going downhill in a hurry. Even worse, I was reading that Congress would stay in session so there will be no “recess appointment.”

And the “bad” news keeps piling up.

Airline deregulation deserves another look

THE ISSUE -- Sen. Daniel Inouye says he plans to conduct Senate hearings of the possible re-regulation of the aviation industry. “

Just in case you didn’t watch those hearings I pointed you towards last week, Senator Inouye is the Chairman of the full committee -- Commerce, Science and Transportation. Oh yeah, he’s also on the Appropriations Committee.

Just in case you don’t get my drift (and while I’m pointing things out), let me remind you of the second thing I ever said on this blog after I retired from the Federal Government.

” Airline deregulation doesn’t work. There. I said it. It’s time somebody did. “

Don Brown
April 14, 2008

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Deaf, Dumb and Blind



Speaking of radar outages, here are three letters for you to remember -- FTI. When the next major ATC outage occurs, those are the three letters to listen for -- FTI. It stands for Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure.

Here’s the news for this week from InformationWeek.

”FTI has been in development since 2002. The FAA said it provides a unified network for voice and data communications across all of its operations. The agency insists it's more reliable, and hence safer, than an older system that relied on a patchwork of disparate systems from numerous vendors. “

Here’s the warning from NATCA and PASS.

WHERE FAA SEES ROSES IN NEW TELECOMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM, CONTROLLERS AND TECHNICIANS FEEL THE PAIN OF THORNS

”Despite a rosy picture painted Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) network is unreliable, lacking suitable backups, and continues to be a source of great frustration and deep concern for the FAA technicians and air traffic controllers who must deal with the fallout of the FAA’s decision to cut corners and costs on this project and run it on the razor’s edge despite a lengthy list of failures and outages.“

NATCA and PASS didn’t form that opinion overnight. It came from experience. Bad experiences. A lot of bad experiences.

Don Brown
April 13, 2008

What Are the Chances ?



You never know where inspiration for an article will come from. This morning, I was reaching for my headphones to listen to some music. The cord snagged on my spare reading glasses. They fell off the table and hit the on/off switch on the surge protector/power strip. Poof ! I’m in the dark because the lamp was plugged into the same power strip.

Fortunately, I use a laptop and the light from it allowed me to figure out what had happened. But not before I had the uncomfortable feeling that I’d been in this situation before. More than once actually.

I can’t think of a worse feeling in the world than sitting in front of a radar scope and suddenly -- Poof ! -- you’re in the dark. Just like this morning, you’re never ready for it. It’s always a surprise. And when you’ve got a scope full of airplanes, the little momentary panic can turn into a huge surge of adrenaline.

In the aftermath of one such occasion, the story (I have no idea if it was accurate) of how it happened came back to the control room floor. When the FAA’s mainframe computer was installed, it had an emergency shutoff switch. On a previous occasion, someone had accidentally pressed the switch, killing the computer feeding data to the controller’s radar scopes. Obviously, this was unacceptable so just as obviously, the FAA installed a protective cover on the switch and -- for good measure -- put a lock on it. Problem solved. You’d have to use the key and lift the cover to hit the switch. No more accidental computer shut downs. Well, until the light went out.

One of the janitors went into the computer room to change the light bulb. He carried his ladder over to the overhead light, climbed the ladder and promptly fell off. The ladder tipped over, smashing the protective cover, hitting the emergency shut off switch and -- Poof ! -- about a gallon of adrenaline was pumped into the hearts of a hundred controllers handling a thousand airplanes.

What are the chances ?

Don Brown
April 13, 2008

Friday, April 11, 2008

Hearing the Hearings



I’ve spent the entire morning watching the Aviation Oversight Hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. You’ll find the link to the webcast on the linked page or you can click here if you have a couple of hours to burn. It’s an unedited broadcast so here are a couple of time hacks for you. The hearing doesn’t actually get started until the 00:35 mark. The hearing starts again at the 2:12 mark, after a recess.

Besides the failure of the FAA to provide oversight of the airlines, this committee and Congressman Oberstar’s hearing kept coming back to the same root cause -- the FAA’s “culture.” The thought struck me that the FAA just doesn’t “get it.” Mr. Sabatini, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, offered up his solution for tightening up his administrative processes by assigning control numbers to documents and requiring review of cases by higher management. How will that address the culture problem ? How will that change the mindset that “airlines are customers” ?

And then there is poor Hank Krakowski, Chief Operating Officer of the Air Traffic Organization at the FAA. Unlike Mr. Sabatini, Mr., Krakowski is relatively new to the FAA. In other words, he didn’t help create this mess. The best thing he could do would be to say he had no idea that the trouble ran this deep and walk away from the FAA. But he offered up his controller-specific version of the airline’s Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) as a cure.

Again, it’s another good idea that doesn’t address the problem. Just as everyone agreed that the voluntary disclosure program with the airlines’ maintenance has positive benefits, so too does ASAP. It isn’t the programs. It is the culture inside the FAA’s management. An organization’s culture isn’t easy to change but it can be done. As a matter of fact, the Bush Administration did it. The only problem is, they made it worse.

Please tell me that I’m not the only one that sees a connection between a “Customer Service Initiative” -- treating the airlines like a customer -- and Marion Blakey’s mantra of acting “more like a business.”

”The FAA is working hard to run more like a business, and concurrent certification projects can help us get there. “

Marion Blakey
December 12, 2006


”More planes, smaller planes, cheaper tickets – they point to the increasing need for the FAA to operate more like a business. “

Marion Blakey
February 28, 2006

The Bush Administration knew exactly what it wanted and Marion Blakey delivered it. Now that it has blown up in their faces they don’t want to accept the consequences of their incompetence. Instead of being hailed as liberators, the Bush Administration's minions are facing an airline passenger insurgency. And in typical fashion, President Bush has nominated Marion Blakey’s right-hand man, “Heck-of-a-job” Bobby Sturgell, to be FAA Administrator.

Guess what folks ? This isn’t over. Not by a long shot. There are a lot more rocks to turn over in the FAA and each one of them will have something nasty hidden under it. Don’t be surprised when you find out that Alberto Gonzales wasn’t the only legal mind with a warped interpretation of the law. Don’t be surprised when you find out that Blackwater wasn’t the only out-of-control contractor. The Army isn’t the only force stretched too thin. And the FAA won’t be any easier to rebuild than New Orleans.

Don Brown
April 11, 2008

Stop Traffic



Okay, I admit it. I’m overwhelmed. There are so many aviation stories today that I don’t know where to start. And I haven’t even got to the hearings the Senate held yesterday. Google News has over 3,000 stories listed in the first section on the search term “FAA”.

My blog buddies at The FAA Follies are teeing off on a letter from Chairman Oberstar & partners to three FAA managers (one of whom has already been relieved). The letter says their testimony was...how shall we put it...”misleading”. Somehow, I don’t think that is a good thing when your job title includes the word “safety.” “Misleading” and “safety” don’t really mix well.

Speaking of blogs, there is another one on ATC to add to your list -- The Potomac Current and Undertow. It’s about the happenings at the Potomac Tracon (PCT). For those that don’t know, that is the radar approach control facility that handles the Washington, D.C airspace. That includes some interesting places like the Pentagon, DCA, IAD and The White House helipad.

Until I get this all sorted out, I’ll leave you with a couple of interesting -- but different -- items I stumbled on. Both are from The New York Times and both are interviews with their aviation reporter, Matthew Wald.

First, an audio interview.

Second, a video interview with CNBC about (gasp !) re-regulating the airlines.

Don’t take the links as an endorsement (especially the one about re-regulation). I don’t have to agree with Mr. Wald to respect his opinion. I think his opinion is worth listening to whether I agree with it or not.

Don Brown
April 11, 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008

What Kind of Delays ?



When I was in Chicago for the Communicating for Safety conference, a lot of people showed up late. Or not at all. Even one of the speakers didn’t make it. His flight was delayed. It’s a funny thing, when air traffic controllers fly, they are very sensitive to airline agents telling their customers that the delay is an “ATC delay.” There are dozens of stories about controllers being told their flight was delayed due to ATC and the controller calling them on it. Literally. The controller would pick up their cell phone, call their buddies and find out the real reason.

As I’m sure you know by now, there were massive delays yesterday and they couldn’t be blamed on ATC. Hardest hit was American Airlines as they grounded 300 MD-80s. And just so it doesn’t escape your notice (it’s mentioned on the second page of The New York Times article linked above), American Airlines is overseen by the same FAA office that oversees Southwest Airlines -- the FAA’s Southwest Regional Office. The same office that Mr. Stuckey (FAA Flight Standards) ran and was relieved of yesterday.

Much of the traveling public is angry over these events and are looking for a place to lay that anger. In simple terms, who’s to blame ? That will be complicated. I’m already noticing the various slants. Some want to blame Transportation Committee Chairman Oberstar for leaning so hard on the FAA, some want to blame the airlines and some want to blame the FAA. None of these entities is just going to roll over and take it lying down. They all know what is at stake. The thing I would like for you to notice is that every single one of them is trying to win public opinion. That is the grand prize in all this. The public -- you -- are the ones that vote, buy tickets and employ government workers. It is your opinion that matters.

In trying to untangle this mess, I finally found a story that gave me the piece of the puzzle I was missing. I found it in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- in the very last paragraph of the article.

”Experts are mystified about the sudden focus on electrical wiring in the wheel wells of MD-80s. There are no reports of any recent, serious problems.

Boeing first issued a bulletin in July 2005 urging airlines to inspect the wire bundle for the auxiliary hydraulic pump. It said there had been reports of shorted and arcing wires, probably because of wear and abrasion of the insulated coverings. Airlines were told to install new protective covering over the wire bundles. A year later, the FAA ordered the airlines to perform the inspections and repairs within 18 months. “


I couldn’t figure out why American Airlines grounded their MD-80s immediately. It is very rare that the FAA will order a fleet to be grounded immediately. Most of the time, they will allow the airlines a generous period of time to fix a problem (18 months in this case) so that the airlines scheduled flights aren’t interrupted. But if -- and I emphasis “if” -- the airline has had 18 months (or 33 months since July 2005) to fix the problem and it didn’t get fixed (or wasn’t fixed correctly) and the FAA has a powerful Congressman breathing down their necks because of lax enforcement...well, you might want to take the hit and ground your fleet.

You’ll notice that this ties in directly with Chairman Oberstar’s concern about the message the FAA’s “Customer Service Initiative” -- that was hand delivered to the airlines -- might send. I assure you that the idea behind the “Customer Service Initiative” didn’t come from the field. Or out of left field. It came from the top. And I don’t mean Marion Blakey. I mean the top. As in one George W. Bush.

I’m not an expert on aircraft maintenance, nor the side of the FAA’s house that does the aircraft inspections. I might not be able to hit the bull’s eye on this one but I bet I can still hit the target.

Oh, and if any of your friends got caught up in the airline delays and want to know who to blame ? Ask them who they voted for in the last election.

Don Brown
April 10, 2008

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

FAA Hits the Big Time



Some of you may recall that I said Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is “the smartest man on TV.” I also told you that it is where much of my children’s generation gets their news. Well, congratulations are in order for the FAA. They managed (<-- that’s a joke, get it ?) to make it onto The Daily Show. Watch the clip.


The Daily Show with Jon Stewart -- Airplane

There is another comment Jon made (leading into the next segment) that didn’t make it onto that clip.

”It turns out that the FAA has not exercised proper oversight over the very industry that it is charged with regulating. Just as -- under the present Administration -- the FDA, the EPA, the mining agencies, etc...have also failed consumers and workers. A pattern ?“

I told you he was a smart guy.

Don Brown
April 9, 2008

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Beginning



That "THUNK" you just heard was another FAA manager being thrown off the bus. Don’t be surprised when it backs up and runs over him.

FAA reassigns official who oversaw Southwest Airlines

”Thomas Stuckey was removed Monday from his position as head of the flight standards office for the FAA's Southwest region, spokeswoman Laura Brown said. "He's in another position, an administrative position that has no safety oversight duties," she said.“

Don Brown
April 8, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- April 8



From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Apr 8, 1975: Acting Administrator James E. Dow announced the establishment of the Aviation Safety Reporting Program (ASRP), designed to provide the agency with information on potentially unsafe conditions in the National Airspace System, effective May 1, 1975. To encourage the reporting of violations, the program granted immunity from disciplinary action to pilots or controllers who filed a timely report. No immunity was granted, however, in the case of "reckless operations, criminal offenses, gross negligence, willful misconduct, and accidents." FAA remained free to take corrective or remedial action necessary for air safety.

Although such immunity programs had been instituted before (see Jan 1, 1968), the ASRP was the first not limited to reports of near midair collisions. The program's establishment anticipated one of the recommendations being prepared by the Secretary's Task Force on the FAA Safety Mission (see Jan 28, 1975), of which Dow served as Executive Secretary. The Air Line Pilots Association, skeptical of the ASRP, preferred a system in which a third party would process reports and protect their confidentiality. (See Aug 15, 1975.) “


To quote Yogi Berra, “This is like deja vu all over again.” In case you haven’t seen it, NATCA and the FAA have signed yet another agreement of this type. Take a look.

I have to admit, I don’t get it. The FAA forced a “contract” on NATCA when they imposed their work rules. Why couldn’t they just impose an immunity program ? I assure you controllers wouldn’t object nearly as much to imposing an immunity program on them to promote safety as they did work rules to promote...I forget. What were the work rules supposed to promote ?

”This isn't just a discussion about paychecks. The current agreement contains all sorts of restrictions on the FAA that no employer would agree to in any sensible business arrangement provisions that give the union de facto control over schedules and staffing levels “

Marion Blakey
July 13, 2005


Too bad controllers really weren’t in charge of “schedules and staffing levels.” Considering the mess the FAA has made of them, it’d be a great option if the FAA was able them give them back to the controllers.

Steering back on course...How much did it cost the FAA to implement this new safety program ? Probably about as much as it’s worth -- next to nothing.

The FAA can improve their safety culture any time they choose to do so. Nobody can stand in their way and nobody would. All they have to do is...well, just do it. Besides, they are just reinventing the wheel. We already have an immunity program that has been working for over 30 years -- really working -- NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Aug 15, 1975: FAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) signed an agreement under which NASA would operate a third-party reporting system guaranteeing anonymity to persons providing information about safety hazards and incidents (see Apr 8, 1975). This system was designed to overcome fears that FAA's Aviation Safety Reporting Program would not provide genuine immunity. NASA agreed to: receive and process reports; delete information that would reveal the identity of the informants; analyze and interpret the data; and provide the results to FAA and the aviation community. Information concerning criminal offenses, however, would be referred directly to FAA and the Justice Department. The system was to become operational by Apr 15, 1976 (see that date.) “

But wait ! There’s more ! Read this from Air Safety Week.

”At the same time the White House recently announced with much fanfare the new government-industry effort regarding the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), the FAA's funding for ASRS is being cut back. “

”The White House announcement rings hollow, especially given FAA declarations about the need for "data-driven" safety programs. ASRS is a primary source of precisely such incident data. Indeed, guess what the National Transportation Safety Board requested immediately after the Alaska Airlines MD-80 crash? That's right, an ASRS evaluation of all inflight control problems with the MD-80.

As an appalling illustration of the impact of budget cuts, of some 35,000 ASRS incident reports received annually, only about 30 percent wind up in the data base. The staff cannot handle them all, so must decide which of the reports are the most worthy of keeping. Consider the dilemma: is it better to keep a well-written report and discard a poorly-written submission? ASRS staff have been placed in the role of judges, looking for trends. But any system forced to discard two-thirds of its reports may in fact wind up missing trends, under the notion that the sum of the seemingly trivial could point to a widespread hazard. “


Those quotes aren’t new either. They’re from February 2000.

You might be asking yourself a question. Why strangle a program that works and implement a program that won’t work because your employees don’t trust you ? If you’ll explore that last link, it might dawn on you that controlling the flow of information is what’s important to the FAA. Seriously, take a look around. See if that “interview” of Nick Sabatini doesn’t smack of propaganda to you.

It’s about the data and who controls it. If you don’t like the answer, change the figures.

"The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”

Joseph Stalin


Maybe they’ll contract the program out to these guys.




Don Brown
April 8, 2008

Monday, April 07, 2008

In Other News...



Read this short blog entry from Paul Krugman about an apparent attack on Iceland’s financial system.

The North Atlantic conspiracy


Wouldn’t that just be the icing on the cake ?

Don Brown
April 7, 2008

It’s Worse Than They Think



There is an underlying theme I see developing in the news coverage of Chairman Oberstar’s hearing on the FAA. The FAA is trying to put out this fire and convince the public that this incident is an isolated incident. Barring that, they would have you believe that these symptoms are limited to the FAA’s Southwest Region. (I know it is confusing some people. The story involves Southwest Airlines and the FAA’s Southwest District Office -- two entirely different bodies.) If they can’t convince you it’s limited to the FAA’s Southwest office then they’ll try to convince you it’s limited to the FAA’s aircraft inspection line of business.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The FAA incompetence and arrogance you see on display in these hearings is systemic. It is pervasive. It is so all encompassing that most people -- including several committee members in these hearings -- have been reduced to referring to it as the FAA’s culture.

This culture has always been present in the FAA. It is almost an occupational hazard (if you will). You must remember the FAA’s history. Much of the FAA’s management and nearly all of its technical expertise came from the military. General Elwood R. Quesada was the first Administrator of the FAA and the FAA’s ties to the military go back even further -- and deeper. There have been many benefits to this culture. The FAA was once known as one of the most technically competent, civilian agencies in government. But there have also been problems.

As always, finding the right balance seems to be the problem. As I have stated before, every large organization has a certain number of managers that should be kept in check. Unfortunately, this Administration -- under the leadership of Marion Blakey -- enabled the very managers that should have been kept out of positions of real power.

The fact that this course of action was deliberate is well documented. There is no doubt that it was intentional. The ruthlessness and almost child-like cruelty of it is obvious to anyone who will look at the facts. The hiring of Joe Miniace demonstrates the ruthlessness. Mr. Miniace, plain-and-simple, is a professional union-buster. The FAA’s imposition of their work rules on Labor Day demonstrates their child-like cruelty.

I know that many will resist looking at this issue through a labor vs. management lens. I understand. I simply ask that you actually look at it. Follow the instructions from my previous blog entry and watch the video of the 4th panel -- found at the 1 hour 41 minute mark. Pay particular attention to Tom Brantley of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists. When he speaks, you’ll probably fail to notice that he isn’t an aircraft inspector. He’ll explain his FAA background later during questioning. His obvious comfort in representing his members in matters outside his area of expertise comes from the fact that he recognizes the FAA’s tactics too. Those same tactics exist throughout the FAA -- for aircraft inspectors, equipment technicians and air traffic controllers alike.

I encourage you, in the strongest terms possible, to watch the entire testimony -- including the question and answer portion -- of these men and women. They aren’t the polished policy makers that you normally see under the bright lights. These are the people from the field -- the people that get it done. Ask yourself if they are telling the truth. And in case you are tempted to dismiss Mr. Thrash’s typically-Texan,-over-the-top testimony (as I first did when listening on the radio) -- take a closer look. You’ll see Chairman Oberstar taking notes. Here is some background on the specific story in case you’re interested.

Don Brown
April 7, 2008

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Management: Fair Warning



Oh, the never-ending joys of retirement. I know you might not have a lot of time to watch Chairman James Oberstar’s hearings on FAA oversight but I do. I’ve spent much of today watching them -- even after I spent much of the previous two days on the road listening to them. (Pity my long-suffering wife.)

I don’t spend much time talking to FAA management on my blog. And I do my best not to taunt them. I don’t suppose I am able to hide my dislike of the bad managers...but I try not to taunt them. So please, don’t take this as taunting. Take it as a warning. A fair warning.

I expect the links on the internet to change so I am providing instructions on how to find a particular clip I’ve been watching on CSPAN. Currently, the clips are on the front page. Go to CSPAN and look for the “Recent Programs” section. Look for ”House Transportation & Infrastructure Cmte. Hearing on FAA Oversight - Panels 3 & 4 (April 3, 2008) “ and click on it. Click on the “Watch” button beside “Panels 3 & 4”. It’s a Real Audio file and that application should start up. (You can get the program for free at RealPlayer.com if you don’t already have it installed.) You can (of course) watch the whole thing if you have plenty of time. But for those with limited time I suggest fast-fowarding to 2 hour 14 minute mark, where Congressman DeFazio starts another round of questions.

If you’re an FAA manager, you need to ask yourself a question. Do these guys sound like they’re kidding around ? When Chairman Oberstar talks about all this going “to the top” and says that the only “salvation” the previous panel full of managers will have is their “faulty memory” -- because they were testifying under oath -- do you think he’s kidding ? When Congressman DeFazio mentions the “little jail” they used to have at the Capitol, I think he actually was kidding. But only about using the jail at the Capitol. I think he’s seriously contemplating a different jail.

This week, this month or maybe this year, the hearings are about FAA aircraft inspectors. I feel certain that sometime soon this Committee’s attention will turn to the air traffic control side of the FAA’s house. When it does, I can guarantee you that air traffic controllers will be standing in line for an opportunity to testify -- under oath -- in one of these hearings. I can also guarantee you that some of us have been taking notes and keeping documentation.

Upper-FAA management threw their supervisor -- Doug Gawadzinski -- to the wolves. I hope there isn’t any doubt in any FAA manager’s mind that the same can’t happen to them when the spotlight starts falling on the Air Traffic side of the FAA.


Oversight of the FAA has returned to Washington. It is long overdue. Fair warning.

Don Brown
April 6, 2008

Saturday, April 05, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- April 5



From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Apr 5, 1991: An Embraer 120 commuter plane crashed on approach to Brunswick/Glynco Jetport, Ga. All 23 persons aboard the Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight died in the accident, including former Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.). Citing several incidents, FAA during May required inspections of certain Hamilton Standard propellers used on the Embraer 120 and other aircraft In Apr 1992, the National Transportation Safety Board cited the probable cause of the crash as malfunction of the left propeller control unit. As contributary factors, the Board listed deificencies in the design of the control unit and FAA's approval of that design. “

If you get a chance to see any of the hearing Chairman James Oberstar is holding (I’m sure they’ll be on YouTube if they aren’t already), this is a good accident to keep in mind. Take note of this quote from above: “Citing several incidents, FAA during May required inspections...” Incidents aren’t accidents. Incidents are warning signs that there may be accidents if we don’t address the problems.

The accident from this history entry was followed by another in 1995. Ironically, it was also in Georgia.

Probable cause

The probable cause of the accident was determined to be the failure of the propeller due to undiscovered metal fatigue resulting from corrosion. There had been at least two previous failures of the same propellers, but those aircraft had been able to land safely. The propellers had been recalled and serviced at a Hamilton Standard facility, but the inspection had been incomplete and the refurbishing work ineffective.

The NTSB criticized Hamilton Standard, who had maintained the props, for "inadequate and ineffective corporate inspection and repair techniques, training, documentation and communication", and both Hamilton and the FAA for "failure to require recurrent on-wing ultrasonic inspections for the affected propellers". The overcast skies and low cloud ceiling at the crash site also contributed to the severity of the crash. “


Don Brown
April 5, 2008

Friday, April 04, 2008

Kentucky Rain



I’m still on the road, returning home from the Communicating for Safety conference. No, I didn’t fly. I drove. You might question that -- but remember -- I’m retired with plenty of time. One of the first e-mails I got in Chicago was from a buddy whose flight was canceled, making him a day late getting to Chicago. Think about it.

I took a different route home. It was a nice ride through the prairie but it started to rain just before we got to Kentucky. I’ve got this quirk -- this “thing”. Songs just pop into my head and I start singing them. My wife -- a big Elvis fan -- had had enough of Kentucky Rain by the time we reached Tennessee.

I noticed that Nashville likes to tout its relationship with Elvis. Advertising is an interesting thing. If you listened to it, you would think Elvis’ second home was Nashville. Maybe that is what the FAA thinks they are doing. Maybe they bought their own line (act more like a business) and they think they are advertising instead of lying. Elvis was not warmly received at the Grand Old Opry and he swore he’d never come back. The FAA is a government agency and it will never act like a business. And it never should.

I assume you are following the hearings Chairman Oberstar is holding. I listened to them on CSPAN-Radio as I drove through the cold Kentucky rain. And the rain kept pouring down. On Kentucky and the FAA.

Don Brown
April 4, 2008

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- April 1 & 2



I fell asleep at the switch yesterday. I was running a little short on time because of the CFS conference and I didn’t check the FAA’s history for the day. I mean, after all, nobody plans any momentous events on April Fool’s day right ? Wrong. It was one of the busiest days in the FAA’s history that I’ve seen. I chose this entry:

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

” Apr 1, 1962: FAA commissioned the Fort Worth air traffic control center's new building. Other new center buildings commissioned during 1962 were: Kansas City, Apr 30; Denver, May 1; Memphis, May 5; Minneapolis, Jul 1, Seattle, Aug 1; Salt Lake City, Oct 1; Indianapolis, Nov 1; and Chicago, Dec 1. “

It’s just amazing what these folks can accomplish when they want to. Keep in mind each Center has probably 30-50 radar scopes and houses 400-600 people. Those number might have been a little lower back that far but still...

Pretty amazing what a few mid air collisions will do to motivate the FAA.


From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Apr 2, 1971: The Administrator gave air traffic control facilities increased flexibility in granting pilot routing and altitude requests for all types of aircraft. Conditions permitting, controllers were empowered to: relax the requirements for preferential routings; assign the most economical altitudes; discontinue standard instrument departures; and honor requests for direct radar vectors. These relaxed procedures were made possible by a temporary decline in air traffic during fiscal 1971 (the first such decline since fiscal 1961), which coincided with a general slowdown in the U.S. economy. “

I think I mentioned the other day that an economic slowdown may be the FAA’s best chance to weather this storm. After listening to the safety representatives at this conference, the FAA will need another Depression in order to keep their head above water. Hey, it’s either that or they really need to be “motivated.” Check entry #1, above. Take your pick.

That’s the problem with making bad decisions. Bad decisions usually only leave you with bad choices.

Don Brown
April 2, 2008

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ode to Scott Adams



Yes, I still find time to read even when I’m at a safety conference.

It turns out that comics (the people and the strips) are smarter than we give them credit for. I can’t say it any better than Paul Krugman, so jump over to The New York Times and read:

The Dilbert Strategy


I’ll go back to listening to the Catberts at the FAA.

Don Brown
April 1, 2008