Garvey speaks about her stint at FAA and future of agency

 - January 21, 2008, 11:19 AM

Even before Jane Garvey took the helm of the FAA nearly six years ago, she made the pilgrimage to Oshkosh for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual gathering at Wittman Regional Airport. That journey would continue throughout her five-year term, and it helped to win over many of her early skeptics.

Much of Garvey’s previous experience had been in surface transportation, first in the Massachusetts Department of Public Works and later in the Federal Highway Administration. In between she served as director of aviation for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Boston Logan International Airport.

She admitted that during her first trip to Oshkosh, which came days before she was sworn in as the first female FAA Administrator and the first person chosen to serve a congressionally mandated five-year term, she wondered, “What am I in for?”

“Clearly there were skeptics and clearly there was a lot of concern–particularly for somebody who was expected to be here for five years–whether this was the right match,” she recently told AIN from her new offices at APCO Worldwide, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs and communications company.

“But I hope what I was able to do–and certainly what I tried to do–was to work very aggressively and hard with the aviation community,” Garvey said. “In the case of GA, clearly I didn’t know all of the answers. That wasn’t a field that I had spent an enormous amount of my professional life in. So I had a lot to learn, and I wanted to learn.”

A first order of business, she said, was to sit down with representatives of general aviation and map out what was important to them and what could be accomplished by working together. “I hope, and think, I was able to do that early on in my tenure,” Garvey said. “We sort of laid out an agenda, whether it was the Safer Skies agenda for general aviation or working on certification issues or working on one of the technologies.”

Garvey is convinced that people outside the aviation industry don’t realize how committed to safety the people in aviation are. “I think sometimes the industry–whether it’s the general aviation industry or the commercial side–may be underestimated on how strongly they feel about safety,” she said. “Certainly from my vantage point, we were in this together, we needed to accomplish a great deal and we were going to do it only if we worked together.”

Unfinished Business
Garvey admitted that leaving any job carries with it a sense of unfinished business, and she predicted that 2003 will be a very important year for capacity issues, for both the FAA and the industry, on a number of Free Flight initiatives.

“It’s always wonderful to be around for [the completion of projects],” conceded Garvey. Even though she stepped down in early August, she still received about 10 telephone calls from controllers, managers and people within the FAA when the new Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System went operational in Philadelphia in mid-November. The message was that “we did it,” she said. “I guess I’m feeling that in many ways, even though I’m not there, people have been wonderful–including the Administrator [Marion Blakey] herself–sort of keeping me up to date on what’s happening.”

Although Garvey often used to make comments about how long she had been in the job–down to days, hours and minutes sometimes–she now describes it as “an incredible five years.” But she observed that many people would suggest, including Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), that “if you really want to change an agency, and I suppose make a difference, you probably have to be here even longer than five years, and seven years is probably a good time. I was glad he said that to me on my last day.”

But five years, especially when compared to the shorter tenures of previous Administrators, is good, Garvey said. “For me, we did see a consensus around the technologies and the [Operational Evolution Plan],” she said, describing it as “extraordinarily significant.” And she is heartened by the fact that even though security concerns are taking a big cut of the budget, the OEP priorities have been funded.

“I think that speaks to the consensus that the industry has been able to hold together,” said Garvey. An important element is having the General Aviation Coalition actively participate with the FAA on important safety and weather issues in addition to the work the GA community has done on its own, such as the runway incursion initiative and the Safer Skies agenda.

Garvey acknowledged there is a constant challenge to keep the consensus together and maintain a political will to see the agenda through during tough economic times, what the industry is now facing.

The financial plight of the nation’s airlines is of particular concern because of investments they would be required to make in new elements of the OEP, such as controller pilot datalink communications (CPDLC). “I un- derstand from the [FAA] people in Free Flight that the industry is still being fairly resolute on the important priorities,” said Garvey. “But there’s no doubt about it. There are going to be some tough discussions between the industry and the FAA over the next several months as to what we can really afford.”

A corresponding question, she cautioned, is “can we afford not to do these things?” Harking back to the Gulf War, she recalled how the industry really bounced back afterward and “we weren’t really quite ready for it at that point. We hadn’t made the investments we needed.”

Although the industry needs to take heed of those lessons, she noted that it is in a tougher situation now, starting in a much more weakened position. However, she noted that some work being done at MIT suggests this bounce back will be somewhat quicker and with many more RJs, which, she added, makes sense. Another factor in the recovery will be aircraft that are parked, but ready to go, in the desert. “The question is if we can keep the modernization efforts going and if we can sustain those, so that we really are ready,” Garvey said.

Garvey’s new position with APCO, which has international offices, gives her a chance to represent some American clients internationally and to do some work with international clients, both in the aviation and surface-transportation arenas. These include such aviation matters as Stage 4 noise standards, hush kits and harmonization of rules between the U.S. and the European Union.

“I think the whole issue of harmonization is going to be very interesting this year,” Garvey asserted. “There is a conference in September on harmonization and, while we’ve always thought of it on the safety side, I think we are going to see much more effort and a great deal of emphasis from the FAA and the Administrator on the communication and navigation side.”

Having worked with EU counterparts during her stint at the FAA, Garvey cited her familiarity with many of the issues facing the EU and how the EU hierarchy works. “This is the perfect time both for us and for Europe to take a great deal of mutual interest in that,” she said. “Certainly those are issues that I look forward to working on.”

Garvey also expects to be actively involved in helping clients navigate the new European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), including its relationship with the European Joint Aviation Authorities and how the FAA should interact with it. Alluding to the single-sky ATC system for the EU, she said, “I think all of that has implications, not only for the European Union, but certainly for the U.S. and globally.”

Even though Garvey is now safely ensconced in the civilian sector, she still takes issue with recent criticism from the Transportation Department inspector general over the five-year contract that the FAA signed with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) in 1998. In testimony before Congress, DOT IG Kenneth Mead has singled out some cases where controllers are being paid nearly $200,000 a year, and that promised gains in productivity were never realized.

Garvey eagerly defended the contract, which NATCA and the FAA have tentatively agreed to extend two more years. “Ken Mead and I have worked together on a number of issues,” she said, “but on the controller contract, there are just a number of points where I would strongly disagree.”

According to the former Administrator, the salaries he cited come about through overtime, working on holidays and those staffing the busiest ATC centers. “I’m not advocating that we should have high numbers of controllers who are working that overtime, but I think we have to really understand that it is a very small number out of 15,000,” she told AIN. “Secondly, there have been a couple of reports about increased productivity with the contract.”

She said that Eurocontrol reported last June that the U.S. system was twice as efficient as the European system, and U.S. controllers were twice as productive as European controllers. “So we do have some specific studies that show it,” said Garvey. “Do we want to search for more productivity? Absolutely. Is there room for improvement? Always.”

Garvey further suggested that this was the first time in the history of the FAA that productivity gains were put on the table and made part of the contract. Lost in the debate, she argued, was that the FAA really wanted the controllers union to buy into ATC modernization.

“Instead of fears about losing their jobs,” she said, “what we ended up with was 65 modernization teams with the controllers very much a part of it. Not only part of it, but in the case of STARS, offering us suggestions that saved us money and time.”

She said that led to an “incredibly productive period” and a very positive relationship between the union and management during the last several years. “That is something I’m very proud of,” she added. “I think the [Bush] Administration certainly has seen the value of extending it for two years, and I think that was a very wise decision.”

AIN also asked Garvey about the pending reorganization of the FAA’s ATC services, which has been under way in various forms for more than five years. While NATCA fears that recent moves by the Bush White House are precursors of “privatizing” or “corporatizing” the ATC system, along the lines of Nav Canada or the UK’s National Air Traffic Services, the term most often used by the Clinton Administration was “performance-based organization” (PBO).

Garvey said she embraces the concept of a PBO. “What you are talking about is an organization that has a clear set of metrics, a clear set of expectations–so that everyone knows exactly how it is being measured–and can meet those,” she explained. “It is in some ways harder than it appears to establish the right metrics. The FAA is data rich but information poor.”

A tougher part is organizational changes within the FAA, and she said there has been a reluctance on that until a COO is selected. “Certainly I was reluctant,” Garvey admitted. “I didn’t want to begin that and then have a [COO] come in and say, ‘You know what, this isn’t the way I think it should be done.’”

Garvey said that Blakey agrees and has “very aggressively” gone back to the COO search, “which I think is an important step forward.”