Garvey Bids Adieu at D.C. Aero Club

 - May 6, 2008, 6:50 AM

Outgoing FAA Administrator Jane Garvey called it her “state of aviation” address. Garvey said she always chose the Washington Aero Club to give something approaching a “state of aviation” address. “In preparing today’s remarks, I took a look back at some of those old speeches; and what struck me, in retrospect, was the sheer number of subjects–all of them critical, most of them controversial, and, as I know you will agree, none of them easy,” she recalled. “I’ve stood before you to talk about modernization, labor-management relations, security, infrastructure, Y2K and a whole lot more.”

At her confirmation hearings in 1997, she remembered that Senators described the job of FAA Administrator as difficult, demanding and overwhelming, among other things. “And those were the optimists,” she declared. “Beyond the everyday trials of managing an organization with 50,000 employees, and overseeing the largest and most complex air traffic management system in the world, there was the challenge of restoring confidence in an industry that had been hit hard by some terrible accidents. Morale was sinking. The Y2K threat was looming.”

One of the first big challenges was the Y2K bug, and many in the country and in government wondered whether the FAA was up to the task. Congress held hearings as 2000 approached, and its members demanded to know what the agency was doing and how quickly it was doing it.

Garvey said the FAA had more than 600 systems and millions of lines of computer code that had to be reprogrammed while shouldering “the added responsibility of leading the rest of the world’s aviation systems through what had to be a seamless transition.” Aero Club members and guests were reminded, “That experience, I think, showed us all what we can achieve when we apply ourselves to a common goal.”

That same determination, she said, was used to meet many other “imperatives of modernization” during the past five years. “Since 1997 we’ve completed more than 7,100 projects, installing new facilities, systems and equipment across the U.S. and integrating them into the National Airspace System,” Garvey continued. “We’ve done more than 10,000 upgrades of ATC hardware and software. Today, you can visit every one of our centers in America and won’t find a single piece of hardware that’s been around longer than I’ve been in this job.”

She said that with the FAA’s commitment to RNP, it is taking “crucial steps” in transitioning from a ground-based navigation system to a satellite-based system, and toward safely handling more aircraft in less airspace. She contended that the way this was achieved was no less remarkable than what was achieved.

“You know, it seems sort of obvious that when you’re designing new technological tools, you ought to consult the people–controllers, technicians, pilots–who are going to use them,” said Garvey. “For too long, that just wasn’t the case. When new equipment arrived at the loading dock, it was a little too much like Christmas Day–no one knew what was inside the box, the instructions were near impossible to follow and batteries were not included.”

She argued that today everyone knows what to expect and how to use it. “When we develop new products and programs, we do it not only with the users in mind, but at the drawing board,” said Garvey.

With all of this new hardware and software, delays due to equipment are down 70 percent from this time last year, she claimed. Meanwhile, a Eurocontrol report shows that the productivity of U.S. controllers is about twice as great as in Europe and that U.S. air traffic management is about twice as efficient.

“It’s true: you just don’t hear about outages anymore,” Garvey insisted. “Instead, you hear about more direct routes, lower fuel consumption and–let us not forget–
better service for the men, women and children who entrust us with their air travel.”

The nation’s first FAA Administrator to serve a congressionally enabled five-year tenure pointed out that “this clear progress in air traffic management is critical for aviation’s recovery from the one-two punch of the terrorist attacks and last year’s recession.” And she predicted that despite an “inevitable” decline in traffic, yields and revenue, the FAA expects to see traffic returning to pre-recession levels next year.

According to Garvey, the FAA’s Op-erational Evolution Plan (OEP) is already the centerpiece of its efforts to build and expand infrastructure over the next decade. The OEP includes new runways, new technologies and new procedures, which she characterized as a set of marching orders and not a wish list. The OEP was agreed upon by the government and the aviation community last year, and it sets out responsibilities of the FAA, airlines and airports to take action.

Using Detroit, where a new runway opened in December, as an example of what such action can achieve, she said that the number of flights per hour that Detroit Metro can handle jumped from 146 to 182 in good weather–a 25-percent increase.

“We’ve targeted our efforts toward the worst bottlenecks in the system,” Garvey said. “The controllers among you have told me that conflict probe, now in use at four centers, is the biggest improvement in the en route environment you’ve seen in your entire careers. It cuts costs even as it cuts emissions.”

Garvey credited collaboration and consensus within the aviation community for many of the successes during her tenure at the FAA. “Working together,” she said, “we reduced the accident rate for U.S. airlines by 29 percent over our baseline last year. We did so by agreeing on an unprecedented strategic plan for safety–Safer Skies. We now base our priorities on what the data, not the headlines, say.”

One of the greatest challenges facing the next FAA Administrator will be staying focused on modernization and safety in the face of new security pressures, she cautioned. And in her last official appearance before the Washington Aero Club, Garvey concluded: “I know my successor will count on your insights and energies just as much as I have. Because if one thing is clear to me as I leave office, it is that our roles, like our lives, are interdependent; our goals are interconnected.

“Modernization, for example, is dependent on the financial health of the industry. Safety depends not only on new technology, but also on the century-old concern of labor relations. Efficiency in the air has a lot to do with security provisions on the ground. And so on. None of us is flying solo.”