Bedeviled by political gamesmanship and misfortune, it’s a wonder the FAA gets anything done—never mind accomplishing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). With the latest transition in FAA leadership, we’ve come full circle to the situation that prevailed when President George W. Bush left office three years ago, with an interim administrator and no reauthorization.
Much has happened in the meantime. Three years ago, Robert “Bobby” Sturgell was acting administrator, having succeeded Marion Blakey when her five-year term ended in September 2007. President Bush nominated Sturgell, a lawyer and former Navy and United Airlines pilot, to take over as Administrator. But the U.S. Senate, then and now controlled by Democrats, never confirmed the nomination.
President Barack Obama took office in January 2009 and nominated J. Randolph “Randy” Babbitt, a former airline pilot and president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), to be Administrator. Lynne Osmus served as interim administrator until Babbitt was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in that June.
In December 2009, Obama nominated Michael Huerta to serve as deputy administrator under Babbitt. The appointment was blocked by Republican Sen. John Cornyn. The Texas lawmaker wanted the FAA to expedite approval of a certificate of authorization allowing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to operate Predator UAVs from the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. Cornyn announced that approval on June 23, 2010. Huerta won Senate confirmation the same day.
The NextGen effort took shape in the Vision 100—Century of Aviation Reauthorization legislation passed in 2003 and advanced by Blakey as FAA Administrator. On Aug. 30, 2007, at the tail end of her term, the FAA awarded ITT (now ITT Exelis) a $1.86 billion contract to begin building the ground infrastructure for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast. Then-deputy administrator Sturgell announced the decision.
At the time, Sturgell was managing the FAA’s leaderless Air Traffic Organization (ATO), the entity within the FAA responsible for implementing NextGen programs. Henry “Hank” Krakowski, an experienced A&P mechanic and former United Airlines pilot and executive, took over as ATO chief operating officer in October 2007. Addressing the Air Traffic Control Association in his first major speech, Krakowski vowed to be “the strongest, most effective public advocate” for NextGen.
Before he was tapped by the White House for the Administrator’s job, Babbitt was due to chair RTCA Task Force 5, the industry and government group that substantially influenced the FAA’s “mid-term” roadmap for implementing NextGen. Babbitt would promote NextGen in many of his speeches. But his early tenure as Administrator was dominated by the FAA’s response to the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo and a three-year-long contract dispute with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca). Assisted by mediators, the FAA concluded negotiations with Natca for a new contract four months into Babbitt’s term. Huerta came aboard a year into the term, and was assigned responsibility for leading NextGen.
But that’s all ancient history. More recently: Krakowski stepped down as ATO head in April this year, following several highly publicized incidents in which controllers were found sleeping on duty. He reportedly was fed up with Washington and offered to “take a bullet” for the team. Babbitt was gone eight months later, tendering his resignation after a drunken driving arrest in suburban Virginia. Highly unfortunate and a blow to the agency, it was, nevertheless, the right thing to do. Huerta, who held senior positions in the Department of Transportation under President Bill Clinton and managed the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, is acting administrator until further notice.
Many of the actors in this real-life drama remain involved in the NextGen effort. In the absence of an FAA Administrator, Blakey is NextGen’s most prominent advocate in her role as CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. Sturgell is senior vice president of Washington operations for avionics manufacturer Rockwell Collins. Krakowski, whom I bumped into recently in Seattle, is consulting on airspace design and doing well. And though he comes primarily from a surface transportation background, Huerta exudes competence, and should do well for the FAA. But one wonders what could have been accomplished with stable leadership—not to mention a stable budget.