Friday, February 20, 2009

Still No News

I keep waiting (and waiting) to hear who the next FAA Administrator will be. It seems as even the rumors have dried up. In case you’ve already forgotten some of the names put forward (at various times), here they are:

Robert Herbert

Neil Planzar

Peter A. DeFazio

Jerry F. Costello

Hank Krakowski

Duane Woerth

Randy Babbitt

I’m probably missing one or two. I don’t believe the Congressmen -- DeFazio and Costello -- were ever really interested. At least I can’t imagine that they were. Nobody but the insiders (that doesn’t include me) have ever heard of Herbert, Planzar is probably too smart to take the job and hopefully the President is too smart to let Krakowski have it. That leaves Woerth and Babbitt. I have to be honest, neither one makes me jump up and down for joy. It’s nice that they’re both ex-union guys. That might help solve the labor/management problem. But they’re both pilots and that definitely won’t solve the FAA’s air traffic control system problem.

Being a pilot doesn’t qualify you to run an Air Traffic Control system. Not unless being a controller qualifies you to run an airline. The political reality, however, is that pilots always feel more comfortable with one of their own in charge.

I perceive today’s events as history repeating itself again. We have so many huge problems in this country that the FAA isn’t even on the radar for President Obama. The Press would have you believe that Secretary LaHood will choose the next Administrator. Whatever.

Air traffic is dropping as it always does in a recession. That takes the heat off of the FAA as far as airline delays. Less traffic equals less delays. Always has. Always will. The FAA will languish until the economy picks back up, traffic increases and delays become widespread again. If action isn’t taken while the economy is slow, the FAA won’t be ready for the inevitable traffic increase. But without the public attention of airline delays, it’s hard for the FAA to get the attention (dollars) it needs to build up the system.

What we need to be doing -- right now -- is hiring controllers, training them, and then looking at the future with a critical eye. The FAA may get the funding it needs for NextGen but, if you’ll remember, NextGen requires ADS-B and Performance Based Navigation -- which is a huge investment for each airplane. Forget the technical problems for the moment. The founding principle was to off load much of the cost of the National Airspace System from the Government to private industry. Remember ? Replace expensive radars with “cheap” ADS-B surveillance. That’s “cheap” for the government. Expensive for the aircraft owner. Replace expensive navigational aids with “cheap” GPS. I’m not even going to try to follow the logic that GPS -- much less GPS ramped up to RNP standards -- is cheap for anybody. Even the FAA. It’s definitely not cheap for the aircraft owners.

It all sounded great when business was booming. Now ? Not so much.

There are advantages, to be sure. If you fly into Juneau, Alaska or to a helicopter platform on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico it all seems reasonable and affordable. If you live in San Francisco, you really want to believe that NextGen will allow simultaneous parallel approaches to runways that are only 750 feet apart -- no matter what the weather. Imagine doing this on a foggy night. (Be sure to click on the other perspective while you’re there.)

But in the end, it will be all for naught. Demand will exceed the supply (even an increased supply) of runway slots in places like New York. And without a national policy that recognizes that limit, we’ll be right back to massive delays, bankrupt airlines and a dysfunctional air transportation system.

The technical challenges for the FAA are tough. The political challenges are far tougher. We need somebody equal to the task.

Don Brown
February 20, 2009

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