System efficiency tops agenda for FAA ATO's Krakowski

 - June 2, 2009, 11:32 AM

Since Hank Krakowski became COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization in October 2007, he has focused his attention on making the ATC system more efficient.

Within several months of taking over the post from the retiring Russell Chew, Krakowski received a baptism by media fire when the FAA acknowledged that ATC managers in the Dallas/Fort Worth Tracon routinely covered up controller operational errors by blaming pilots. At a press conference at FAA headquarters, Krakowski admitted, “We failed as an organization” and then-acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell called the report “disturbing.”

Krakowski recently told AIN that the manager and assistant manager at that Tracon were removed from the facility, given other jobs and have become the subjects of administrative actions. “We have a new management team in place now, [but] the specifics of the administrative actions we are not free to discuss because they are personnel actions,” he added.

The COO said the FAA has “not found any systemic issues anywhere else, not that we don’t have problems with procedures in other facilities and things like that.” What was unusual about the Dallas situation was the managers’ purposeful deflection of the facts, he explained, to put the operational figures in a more flattering light.

Following allegations by a whistleblower, the Transportation Department Inspector General found that between November 2005 and July 2007, Tracon managers misclassified 62 air traffic events as pilot deviation or non-events when in fact there were 52 operational errors and 10 operational deviations. Most involved airliners, although one involved a Learjet.

Relationships with Controllers
Another thorny issue that Krakowski faced when he arrived was charges leveled by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) and others that many FAA facilities were understaffed. Controller staffing, hiring and training was the subject of a House aviation subcommittee hearing last summer and is under review by the DOT IG.

“It has been real, but we are digging out of it,” Krakowski said. “We knew that with the bubble of retirements 2006, 2007 and 2008 were going to be tough years. When I walked into the job everything was going in the wrong direction.”

He said retirements were worse than planned and the agency’s ability to hire new people was underperforming. “We knew we had to get some work done or we would really have dug a hole this year,” he said. “But we turned it around.”

Last year there were 70 fewer retirements than expected and the FAA hired 251 new controllers, Krakowski noted.

“So we reversed both negative trends,” he added. “As controllers are starting to staff up the facilities, we are starting to feel comfortable with the staffing levels.” While he acknowledged there are still problems in some facilities, “I think we are clearly over the hump.”

In October, Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, asked the DOT inspector general to review the FAA’s processes for screening, placing and training newly hired air traffic controllers.

According to Krakowski, training times have been shortened through the use of 24 ATC tower simulators. They are located at various facilities throughout the country. “If you just do [on-the-job] training, you have to be there a year or a year-and-a-half just to work traffic through thunderstorms and snow,” he said. “You can put that on steroids with a simulator.”

The simulators reduce training times by 40 to 60 percent in some cases by exposing trainees to working in weather conditions sooner than they might if they had to wait until the training facility is actually experiencing such conditions.

Krakowski suggested that better trained controllers also should help reduce runway incursions, although 60 percent of the runway incursions are the result of pilot error. Thirty percent are controller error and 10 percent are vehicular or pedestrian intrusions on the airport.

“To really fix the problem you’ve got to attack everything–airports, signage, markings, technology with runway status lights, ASDE-X and all of those new technologies we’re rolling out,” he explained. “Training with the controllers, training with the pilots, it’s really a full-range effort. And we work successfully with [the Air Line Pilots Association], AOPA and NBAA in getting the word out to all of those communities.”

At the time of the interview, there had been no serious runway incursions for Fiscal Year 2009. “We haven’t had a single one since October 1, so we think it’s making a difference,” said Krakowski. “It’s really about awareness and focus.”

AIN asked Krakowski to comment on the progress or lack of progress on NextGen, and how the FAA will get the aviation community energized around it.

“At the Cabinet level, you really need support–and not just documents–as we deploy these systems so that we are working in harmony,” he responded. “I think the President [Bush] really wanted to make sure that all of the Cabinet-level support was there to fuse together the types of conversation and cooperation necessary to move this forward. It reinforced the need for the [Senior Policy Committee]… to make sure the support is there.”