New FAA boss Blakey pledges cooperation

 - May 7, 2008, 6:39 AM

In one of her first speeches as FAA Administrator, Marion Blakey promised that her five-year term will be driven by data and hard numbers, be consistent across all FAA regions and offices and emphasize the agency’s role in international aviation.

“My predecessor, Jane Garvey, succeeded in building a real spirit of cooperation between different members of the aviation community during her tenure,” she said. “I plan to build on that spirit, build on those partnerships and alliances and start the same kinds of dialogue that will be absolutely vital as we take the important steps toward implementing many of the performance-enhancing programs and technologies that will take this industry into the future.”

Blakey seized the forum of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s second annual aviation summit to make two announcements about new technology–that within a month the FAA will approve required navigation performance (RNP) approach procedures for San Francisco International Airport (SFO), and that the first operational use of controller-pilot datalink communication (CPDLC) began in Miami en route airspace on October 7.

As the immediate past chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Blakey said she comes to the job as FAA Administrator “with a very strong safety portfolio, and you can expect me to be consistent with that.” She added that safety is not only the top priority from the standpoint of the public’s interest; it is an economic necessity.

“People will fly only if they feel safe…and they will return to the skies only if they are confident in the system,” said Blakey, whose public-affairs consulting firm specialized in transportation issues.

“I am confident we will see airline passenger traffic return to more normal levels within the next two years,” she said. “I am also convinced this recovery will depend on three factors that matter most to the flying public: safety, security and efficiency.”

Blakey said the FAA needs to help the industry recover through new technology, greater efficiencies and “sensible and non-burdensome” regulatory schemes. But she suggested that perhaps the greatest support the FAA can provide is that of a robust safety authority that will not waver in the face of difficult times.

“Hard choices go with the job,” she continued. “I am not going to be able to please all of you in this room all the time, but I will commit to you that I will do everything I can to understand the issues and the concerns we are facing and make the best decision possible in light of these concerns.”

Blakey told the gathering in Washington that to reveal more specifics would violate one time-tested rule of safety–never discuss policy initiatives after three weeks on the job. However, she did provide the group with a sense of how she will approach the position of FAA Administrator.

“First, I am a firm believer in what Alan Mulally of Boeing calls ‘letting the data drive you,’” she said. “This means looking at the facts and the metrics and the hard numbers and seeing what is really there, not what you would like to be there, and making decisions based upon that.”

Second, she vowed consistency and predictability when it comes to the way the FAA works with the industry. “There should be no significant variations from region to region or from field office to field office,” she said. “I want people to know what to expect. I want people to know what they can count on.”

Finally, she said, “I intend to place a strong emphasis on the international role that the FAA and our aviation industry can play. We already serve as a model for the rest of the world, but we must step up our efforts in global leadership–in technology, in aviation standards and, last but not least, in raising the safety bar throughout the world.”

Blakey assured the attendees that the FAA remains committed to improving the ATC system through better technology and better efficiency, smoother and more rapid certification processes and new technologies and infrastructures that will affect the bottom line and foster huge savings for the industry.

“This is why we are moving aggressively to take advantage of a new type of instrument approach using [RNP] to runways that do not now have precision guidance,” she said. In poor weather it will allow the use of another runway at SFO.

“The beauty of RNP is that it is a performance standard,” said Blakey. “The operators and manufacturers will make the decisions as to what type of investment should be made to take advantage of RNP. Moreover, many of today’s aircraft are already equipped to take advantage of RNP approaches. So to the degree that they are equipped, there is no additional investment required.”

She said that Alaska Airlines is already using the procedures at seven Alaskan airports. The company said that it used to have 150 diversions from Juneau each year, and that the savings at that one airport alone justified equipping 40 aircraft.

Meanwhile, American Airlines began operational testing of CPDLC at Miami Center with 13 equipped airplanes. CPDLC, which has been called e-mail for pilots, shifts routine transmissions from voice to datalink, freeing voice frequencies for other uses and thus reducing delays in transmissions.

Asserted Blakey, “I like the way Ruth Marlin, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, put it when she said, ‘Datalink represents the most significant change in ATC operations since the advent of radar.’"