FAA's goal-setting go-getter: a look at Blakey's first year

 - August 5, 2008, 10:05 AM

On September 13, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey will have completed the first year of her five-year tenure in the position. Is she meeting expectations? Has anything changed? Can any mortal possibly alter the course of what some have called one of the more dysfunctional agencies in the federal government?

The answer, according to experienced FAA watchers and agency insiders, is yes, although all agree there will be many hard decisions called for in the years ahead. But Blakey is reported to be made of somewhat tougher stuff than her predecessor, the occasionally pliant Jane Garvey.

As the former chairman of the NTSB, Blakey had ample opportunity to observe the FAA’s modus operandi, and it’s an open secret in Washington that when first offered the FAA post by President Bush she declined. However, on finally agreeing to accept, Blakey took the unprecedented step of bringing with her several of her previous NTSB staffers, including former military and airline pilot and aviation lawyer Bobby Sturgill, who is now her deputy administrator.

Already, Blakey has made it clear that she is looking for change, particularly in the implementation of a true “performance based” philosophy within the agency. This catchall phrase has, of course, been an FAA mantra for many years although–perhaps typically–an official definition was never published in the past. But to Blakey and her staff, it means goal setting by establishing specific targets as measured by time, budget and well defined results.

FAA assistant administrator for public affairs Greg Martin said, “We hope to apply strict measurements to all that we do so that it will be unmistakable if we are successful or not, and if we are meeting the expectations of industry and Congress. The Administrator is a firm believer in letting data drive the decisions of the agency, and the recent decision to suspend CPDLC is a good example.”

As a former FAA executive put it, “Blakey wants to institute personal management accountability, which we were never able to achieve. If she can get that, most of the FAA’s problems could disappear.”

Certainly, from a flight-operations perspective, things appear to be moving ahead at a quicker pace. Late last year the agency’s Operational Evolution Plan was upgraded to reflect the continuing improvements in post-9/11 traffic numbers, while in June and July of this year three separate planning initiatives were introduced.

Three Future Plans

The first, called the FAA Strategic Plan: Flight Plan 2004 to 2008, is a broad-brush statement of operating policy, embracing all aspects of FAA activity, but with emphasis on operations. The plan was developed by first requesting all agency division managers to submit their essential mission statements and then, in a most un-FAA-like move, the plan was presented in draft form to all employees for comment, followed by an all-hands “town hall” meeting at the agency’s Washington headquarters.

After all comments are in, it’s expected the strategic plan will be made public sometime this month. Notable points are expansion of the Capstone ADS-B project to cover the entire State of Alaska–a safety boost for general aviation and the air-taxi industry–and a strong commitment to required navigation performance (RNP) for all levels of aviation. The first draft of the plan is at www.faa.gov/apo/strategicplan/.

Following closely on the heels of the strategic plan was the agency’s Roadmap for Performance-Based Navigation: Evolution of Rnav and RNP Capabilities, 2003 to 2020. The roadmap is a much more definitive operational document, which clearly sets out the FAA’s expectations over the next 17 years. The plan usefully defines Rnav as the ability to fly desired flight paths within the coverage of ground navaids or within the capability limits of self-contained aids, and compares this with the definition of an RNP installation, with its self-contained independence from ground-based aids and its mandatory track-keeping containment and self-monitoring capabilities.

It also stresses that while the two navigation concepts can run in parallel throughout the period–which it breaks into near term (2003 to 2006), midterm (2007 to 2012) and far term (2013 to 2020)–operator transition to RNP will gradually become more advantageous in terms of enhanced routing, airspace access and other economic benefits.

In fact, in the latter stages of the midterm and into the far term, the roadmap sees RNP procedures becoming mandatory in parts of the upper airspace and for many terminal procedures. By that time, however, most international airline and corporate operators will have long transitioned to advanced RNP technology. As the roadmap points out, Eurocontrol intends next year to move to precision Rnav (P-Rnav), which calls for one-nautical-mile navigation accuracy.

P-Rnav is essentially equivalent to the FAA’s RNP-1, which is not expected in the National Airspace System (NAS) until much later. Eurocontrol estimates that 80 percent of its user airlines already have P-Rnav capability and, while its use will not initially be mandatory, it seems clear that noncompliant aircraft could be at a disadvantage.

The roadmap also introduces two less familiar concepts–required communications performance (RCP) and required surveillance performance (RSP). Although implementation dates for these are not mentioned, their combination with RNP does form the foundation of required total system performance (RTSP), which is a future ICAO goal. Other concepts identified in the roadmap’s far-term aims include the blending of performance-based navigation with ADS-B and TCAS to enable “the transition of tactical separation responsibility to the pilot for certain situations and for limited time periods.”

The roadmap–available at www.atca.org/ upload/roadmap_final_v1_Jul_22.pdf–is unquestionably the most realistic and detailed view of our future operational environment yet published, and is recommended reading for all flight departments.

However, the FAA’s plans do not end in 2020. Late last year Blakey invited John Kern, a former FAA associate administrator of flight standards who left the agency to become v-p of safety and operations at Northwest Airlines, to return to the agency and examine the concept of a “flight plan to 2025 and beyond.”

Kern accepted, and in internal FAA briefings he describes his objective as the development of a unified national flight plan that “sets goals and aligns missions across government to ensure that the United States stays at the forefront of aviation and meets the demand of the future.” The key to this concept, he said, lies in the establishment of an interagency joint-planning office chaired by the FAA and including the Departments of Defense, Commerce and Homeland Security and NASA, which will work in partnership to develop the national aviation plan.

But Kern stressed that the plan is not about NAS modernization. Rather it is about NAS transformation, where the end-state air-transportation system “allows vehicles, both manned and unmanned, to operate safely, securely and efficiently in the NAS, including U.S. airports,” while at the same time meeting the requirements of global interoperability. (This appears to be the first official recognition that NAS users will one day share the sky with unmanned aircraft.)

At the same time, Kern does not ignore general aviation’s needs, and proposes “small-community air mobility packages” to enhance towered and nontower airports, while also bringing Alaska’s ADS-B benefits to general aviation in the Lower 48.

Whither General Aviation?

For NBAA senior v-p of operations Bob Blouin, Blakey’s presence and speech at this year’s EBACE in Geneva was a major coup for both business aviation and the U.S. “She sent a strong message to political leaders in Europe and back at home that business aviation plays a vital role on both sides of the Atlantic. No high-ranking federal official has ever done that outside the United States before.”

Blouin also noted a renewed spirit of cooperation between the FAA and industry on the true meaning of security since 9/11. Where the agency had earlier accepted whatever constraints the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decreed, he was encouraged by the fact that the FAA was now “pushing back and advocating the full use of airspace by all users,” whenever those constraints seemed unreasonable.

And Blouin had simple words of advice to the Administrator: “The key to success at the FAA is to surround yourself with experts, and they in turn will do the same.” However, he acknowledged, Blakey already seems well established on that path.

AOPA senior v-p of government and technical affairs Andy Cebula had a somewhat different take on the FAA. While praising the agency for several initiatives, including accelerating the WAAS commissioning, enforcing AIP airport standards and getting TFRs into graphical formats, he believes that the FAA is still not pushing the DHS hard enough on the timeliness of TFR advisories, and on the issue of general aviation flight through ADIZ areas. And while he appreciated the FAA’s recognition of general aviation in the new Rnav/RNP roadmap, he was concerned that at some point the rules could change to exclude aircraft with less sophisticated avionics from certain parts of the airspace.

A New Contracting Approach

The FAA’s apparently chronic inability to control cost overruns and delivery delays is all too well known, and the agency’s earlier experiences with the WAAS and Stars contracts have undoubtedly shaped the new Administrator’s views toward future major system commitments. Already, Blakey has reportedly insisted that Honeywell’s current Cat I LAAS development work must meet some tough technical and cost-benefit conditions before the FAA will consider exercising its option to purchase production systems.

Beating the cost-overrun and late-delivery problem will be difficult, but one important step forward is expected to be the introduction of individual accountability within the FAA’s program-management ranks.

According to many, this is long overdue, citing as an example the failure of WAAS to meet its essential integrity targets during acceptance tests in 2000. It subsequently turned out that while FAA officials knew they had no competence in measuring integrity performance, the same officials equally had no confidence in the contractor’s capabilities in this extremely critical area. The result was a three-year learning curve for both sides and an equivalent delay in system commissioning, in addition to massive cost escalation.

Three other problems remain, however. Because the gestation period from major system conception to actual production takes many years, there’s the understandable tendency to plan on using new technologies that have almost, but not quite, proved themselves, with the assumption that they will have done so when the time comes, at which point the agency would appear foolish to have stuck with earlier methods. Often it works. Sometimes it turns out to be a recipe for costly redesign and delay.

And as several sources within and outside the FAA have told AIN, there’s a disturbingly large and growing knowledge gap between the agency’s technical staff and their industry counterparts. “Basically,” said one FAA engineer, “we have to rely on the contractor’s word that its solutions will work because we just can’t keep up with today’s advances in technology.”

Former FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond explained another problem: “The FAA has always suffered from poor cost and time estimates on major programs, usually from over-optimistic technical advocates seeking quick project approvals. Management simply has to demand realism–or else.”

Certainly, Blakey and her officials can be expected to demand realism in all future major procurements, none of which appears to be getting any cheaper or less challenging. Among those ahead is the en route automation modernization (ERAM) project, which will replace the 30-year-old, failure-prone Host ATC computer system and its limited-capability backup system.

Reportedly, ERAM will be the largest and most complex development project ever to have been undertaken by the agency, with a massive, one-million-line software program and a price tag exceeding $2 billion. But an FAA insider cautioned that ERAM started “by someone simply suggesting we upgrade the ATC computers, and it’s been growing almost exponentially ever since.” Doomsayers are betting that ERAM’s costs will double present estimates.

A Shoot-out with Controllers?

While no one expects a repeat of the 1981 Patco strike, when President Reagan fired all air traffic controllers who went on strike, there seems no question that relations between the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and the new Administration will not be as cordial as they were between the union and former Administrator Garvey. “Garvey,” said a former FAA executive, “was instructed by President Clinton to keep controllers happy.”

In that respect, judging by a February report to Congress by the DOT’s Inspector General, she appears to have succeeded, with as many as 1,500 individual memorandums of understanding covering job-related issues–many of which involved additional pay or other financial benefits–being approved by local FAA managers. Significantly, no other FAA employee group benefited from such largesse.

AIN has learned that several months after the IG’s report, agency officials were still trying to assess the total financial impact of these agreements. “It’s up in the millions,” said one official. But NATCA’s success in this area triggered a wave of new employee organizations within the previously union-free agency. Today, even the FAA’s lawyers have their own bargaining unit.

But the days of the locally approved, and essentially unaccountable, MOUs are now over. Effective June 1, a new FAA policy requires any further MOUs to be fully justified by human resources and financial management before being approved by the agency’s CFO. Nevertheless, long-time FAA-watchers anticipate further confrontations between NATCA and the Administrator over working conditions, assignment to new systems, staffing levels and actual hours of duty where, according to one ATC supervisor interviewed by AIN, controllers at major centers spend an average of 4.2 hours controlling traffic during their eight-hour duty day. Another contentious issue expected to come up shortly is NATCA’s insistence on the return of the currently canceled cockpit familiarization program, which allowed controllers free passage on airliners to see the system operating from the pilot’s point of view. (Rumors of the FAM’s return were greeted on one controller Internet chat line with a jubilant, “Maui, here I come!”)

The issue of ATC privatization is unresolved at press time and will remain so for several weeks. Currently, it appears that some number of FAA-staffed towers might be transferred to private operators, but that any consideration of overall system privatization will be placed in abeyance for several years.

NATCA’s views on both these issues are well known, but while the organization usually cites public safety as its uppermost concern, the first words of one union official contacted by AIN about privatization were “it means a lot of jobs lost.”

And while a current NATCA news release berates the system develop-ment plans of European privatized ATC organizations “where skyrocketing costs abound,” it somehow overlooks homegrown FAA projects such as WAAS–which has gone from its original $880 million cost estimate to $3 billion–and Stars, where the equipment development costs have also swallowed up the money budgeted for 170 production systems intended for use by NATCA members. Meanwhile, for cost-saving reasons the DOD has just switched over its tower operations at Vandenberg AFB in California to a civilian contractor.

Yet a much more disturbing challenge for NATCA lies ahead. This is the question of just how many controllers the NAS will eventually require as new technology gradually transitions their task from today’s hands-on, labor-intensive tactical control to that of strategic oversight in tomorrow’s air traffic environment. At a 2001 Boeing presentation of its next-generation air-traffic management plan, a company official said it would be quite feasible to handle the complete operation of the NAS from a single, medium-size center in the Midwest, although from a security viewpoint three or four smaller regional centers might be preferable. It therefore seems inevitable that, as in other previously labor-intensive industries, automation will substantially reduce ATC staffing levels.