Saturday, January 12, 2013

Fareed's Take -- NextGen

I was listening to Fareed Zakaria's show on CNN -- "Global Public Square" -- and of all things to pop up, the FAA's NextGen reared its ugly head. Oh boy. Now, as all my readers know, I think Fareed's show is great and I love to hear his unique view of America -- even if I don't always agree with it. I think he smart and I think his show demonstrates how great TV can be in the right hands.

So how in the world could he use NextGen as an positive example of what America could be doing with its infrastructure? To put it more plainly, while listening to the show on the beach (yes, via podcast) I blurted out, "Fareed! How could you?!"

This is where controllers come in. Actually, this is where any public servant comes in. America has to be mature enough to handle public dissension. There must be a pubic airing of informed views that are contrary to the status quo. If there is not -- if the public servants with the inside knowledge are silent -- the respected opinion leaders like Fareed Zakaria will be fooled along with everyone else.

I realize that the FAA must move forward. I realize that NATCA can't be just an obstacle to progress -- it has to participate in the progress where possible. That doesn't mean NATCA (or you) can't express reservations. Dissent is important. To use an example from this blog, look at Paul Krugman. His policies have not (for the most part) been adopted. But he has left a years-long record of his dissent. A record that can be studied the next time we have a financial crisis. And there will be a next time. Just as there will be another major program dreamed up by the FAA.

NextGen is not the first. It will not be the last. It won't even be the last disaster and/or partial success of the FAA's. It is easy to learn from your successes. It's harder to learn from your failures. But for those in the future willing to learn, there must be a history from which to learn. Fareed Zakaria cannot learn of NextGen's problems by word of mouth. They have to be written down, made prominent and findable.

Now to the specifics Fareed mentioned. I'll let you listen first.


Just take his use of the two words "Faster" and "Safer". NextGen won't make anybody's travel faster.  "Getting a short cut to a holding pattern doesn’t really help matters does it ?" It doesn't make it "faster".

How can NextGen make the system "safer"? The U.S. hasn't has a fatal airline accident since 2009. We can split hairs and argue about broad statements but when it comes down to brass tacks, the U.S. aviation system is as safe a system as ever devised by man. "The struggle isn’t so much to improve safety as it is to maintain it."

The fact that Fareed fails to grasp this point in the problem. The conversation within the "global public square" is being dominated by interests trying to sell high-tech gizmos to a blissfully-ignorant Public. Letting airplanes fly closer together does not get them on the runways faster. You can't improve on a zero-fatality statistic. It is your job as a public servant to keep these conversations based in reality. At least that is one way I define serving the Public.

There are enough things in air traffic control and the NAS (National Airspace System) that do need investments in infrastructure that we don't need to make things up. We certainly don't need companies seeking corporate profits at taxpayer's expense to make things up. I loved Fareed's "take" on this subject. I agree with his views. However, picking NextGen as an example of what needs to be done was an error. It diminishes his (otherwise sound) argument. And that my friends, it partly our fault. If we can't speak truth to power, then all will be lost.

 “As civil servants, your primary responsibility is to ‘speak truth unto power’”.

 Don Brown
January 12, 2013


MSPB Watch said...

Please consider devoting some coverage to the protections (and pitfalls) available to federal civil servants who decide to speak out.

Iron City said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Iron City said...


Great blog, long time reader, first time commenter, I think.

As a former FAA civil servant I worked on the Brown Book programs and my job was to speak truth to power. I was one of 3 engineers that made up the Administrator's program review staff and in those days each program was reviewed quarterly by the Administrator. Our official job was to find out what was going on on programs and make sure the Administrator knew before the program manager and his reporting chain got to tell too many fairy tales. The unofficial and really more real job was to keep the OST staffs from helping too much, make sure the different programs knew what the policies were and which ones could be waived or pencil whipped and which ones were real, and finally transfer lessons learned across the organization. Since we got to see all the major programs we got to see all the things that went right and went not so right and tried to get the programs to learn from other peoples mistakes. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't.

The FAA today is not what it was, and that is not just an old fart POV. In 1985 you could get a decision in FOB 10A by getting the right few people and doing it. Today there are staffs of people that don't know the pointy end from the blunt end of an airplane who form working groups and review programs to make sure the policy is followed. To them it is a matter of following policy or their little power structure or process they are in charge of. They aren't evil people (mostly) or stupid, just ignorant. And the worst part is they don't know how ignorant they are. You can't have an intelligent conversation with someone reviewing the program to discontinue VOR service who doesn't know what VORs do and that no VOR means no Victor airway. But they sure can have meetings, send emails, etc. Not a one of them have ever read anything on how the common system in the U.S. was developed after WW II or have even read 49 USC and know that the Administrator is in charge, not the Secretary of Transportation. Doubt that the current Administrator has read it either and if he has wouldn't dare to speak truth to that power because...of something. The official agency histories are mainly organizational and political, not technical or operational. Though they are factually correct and well written they don't do the people inside any good in trying to figure out what works and what doesn't. And programatic lessons learned reports etc that I have seen are usually written to conform to someones preconceived notions or what they want the story to be. The true, useful history of things like Advanced Automation System hasn't been written, and may never be, because nobody kept the information or wants to lay it all out for analysis and let the conclusions happen as they will. Different people will each have their point of view based on what they saw and experienced, so we maybe each have our own truths. The current agency historian is very good but can only work with what she has and must fit generally within a bureaucratic space.

Keep up the good work and the excellent blog