The GAO’s Credibility on Aviation and ATC; Not Much, Who Cares

By Robert Mark on February 29th, 2008

Believe it or not, one of the tough parts of writing a good blog is knowing when to keep your mouth shut. And yes, I know there are a few readers who can’t imagine I everGAO keep my mouth shut, but I really do.

Case in point. I had an opportunity to attend the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) general aviation issues conference last fall in Naples Florida. Pretty nice duty when you can get it I must admit.

The conference was designed to focus our attention for two days on general aviation. We almost never mentioned the airlines from what I remember. But there was one session that included a very nice lady – Faye Morrison – from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) who spoke to the issue of Very Light Jets (VLJ). I’ve always had a soft spot for the GAO because I honestly believed they act as a sort of watch-dog on the government and we all know they need it.

Although Morrison’s talk was relatively short, she did hold up this dandy GAO report she’d help build about the future of VLJs. It became clear pretty quickly though that her summary would suffice when she said the report essentially said … “VLJs, don’t know (what it all means) and it depends (what happens in the industry).”  Gee was I excited to hear that kind of in-depth analysis for lord knows how many of our tax dollars. It seemed like a blog post made in heaven, but I decided to sit on it. I would have probably just written something sarcastic anyway so I let it go.

Then a month ago the GAO released another report about airport runway safety. Contained within those pages were the infamous notes about how much of the air traffic controller workforce was actually volunteering for overtime rather than having it assigned. Reading that report is what made me ask those NATCA folks what the heck was going in my Valentine’s Day post.

In all fairness, I was pummeled as a guy who was essentially clueless about the inner workings of the FAA and with a heavy heart, I went to the FAA’s Laura Brown, the agency’s Deputy Asst. Administrator for Public Affairs to ask for some clarification. She offered some thoughts which I posted a few days later by simply cutting a pasting her response with no editing of any kind. Obviously some of our readers had opinions that pretty quickly shined another light on the definition of “voluntary overtime.”

But something kept gnawing at me about the overtime data I read in that GAO report, as well as the rather simplistic analysis at the tail end of the document. I called the GAO’s Chuck Young and his response was quick. He put me on to Bob Homan at GAO who spent some time explaining their system. My thanks to those people for those quick responses.

However, I have to tell you that my jaw dropped – I know … again – when I learned that all the data the GAO used in it’s report came from FAA. So garbage data in produces garbage data out.

I know these reports are put together for members of Congress who apparently know very little about the industry hence the need to avoid the use of too many big words by GAO, but the reports contained very little of any substance I thought. Perhaps they were written just to keep Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) happy.

I was really left wondering about those nice folks at GAO. Do you guys have any idea how silly some of these reports look to the rest of us? How can we possibly believe anything you say now that we realize all you do is grab data from some agency for your reports? Many of us thought you were actually conducting some research of value before you wrote these reports.

And here’s another kicker … wasn’t the GAO the agency that told us the FAA stinks at gathering data to support anything? Then why in the world are you using that very same data?

So how much money did all of this worldly analysis cost the taxpayers you might be asking?

Don’t know. GAO says they don’t divulge that kind of information.

I think I’ll go back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when I want to read some truly critical analysis. GAO reports are now going directly into my junk-mail folder where they belong.

Related Posts:

11 Responses to “The GAO’s Credibility on Aviation and ATC; Not Much, Who Cares”

  1. Debbie Says:

    “GAO reports are now going directly into my junk-mail folder where they belong.”

    In controller speak, you are getting the flick.

  2. Dale Says:

    Thank you for the illumination, Mr. Marks. I will be sure to send this blog to our membership for their education.

    We knew that most news outlets did business this way, we had hoped and assumed that the GAO was more aggressive than this.

  3. Mark T. Says:

    I too, was not aware the GAO gets its data & info from the FAA. That’s a shock and disappointment. So much for objectiveness!

  4. dblz Says:

    check out the last couple of FAA Follies, and note the comments. The system is crashing as we fiddle around with thesr reports…

  5. Chuck Young Says:

    Mr. Mark:

    The facts demand we set the record straight regarding your posting in which you raise questions about two recent GAO reports.

    Regarding the report on runway incursions, GAO’s research identified air traffic controller fatigue as one of several contributing factors involved in runway incursions. To determine the extent to which controllers were working overtime, we obtained data on the frequency of controllers working 6-day weeks from FAA, which is the only organization that collects this information. We reviewed the data that FAA provided and determined that it was sufficiently reliable for our purposes.

    We conducted our examination of controller overtime using a technique called secondary data analysis. This is a way to gather data for one purpose and subsequently use it for another and equally appropriate purpose and, in this case, at significantly less time and cost to the taxpayer.

    As part of our work we also spoke with numerous people and organizations including NTSB and NATCA. Moreover, the most important element of our research on runway safety was its time-critical outcomes. The impact of the GAO report was to get officials from Congress, FAA, airlines, and airports, as well as pilots and others to recognize and take action on a serious aviation safety issue.

    With regard to GAO’s report on very light jets, we were asked what the impact of very light jets was on the national airspace system. Our research showed that it was too early to accurately predict the number of very light jets that will enter the national airspace system and, thus, to predict the effect that these planes will have on the system.

    We presented the results of our research which was based on an in-depth analysis of a number of publicly and commercially available aviation forecasts, combined with a literature review and discussions with a number of aviation industry experts, FAA officials, and academic experts.

    Chuck Young, Manging Director, Public Affairs, GAO.

  6. Wornout Says:

    Sounds like Mr. Young went to the same Public Affairs Spokes Flack School as Laura Brown.

    Mr. Young states, “We reviewed the data that FAA provided and determined that it was sufficiently reliable for our purposes.” Oh, how convenient, that really adds tremendous credibility to the GAO and their reports.

    It’s not only 6-day weeks but doing so with more positions combined, less frequent brakes, and often 10-hour days. Next time try a little real research.

    Mr. Mark, your comments about the GAO’s credibility on Aviation were spot on.

  7. Robert Mark Says:

    Chuck at GAO:

    I’ve been reading your response and honestly I’m not sure anything you said has changed my mind.

    Like the fellow before me here, my point was that the GAO was willing to settle for data from an obviously flawed source.

    Certainly as I mentioned in my original post, my VLJ comments were just this side of tongue and cheek, but not on the ATC numbers.

    But maybe I really missed something so please correct my thinking here.

    If one GAO reports claims the FAA keeps lousy statistics, how do you turn around and base conclusions in another report based on data that you essentially admit is questionable?

    Rob Mark

  8. resigned 01/03/07 Says:

    “To determine the extent to which controllers were working overtime, we obtained data on the frequency of controllers working 6-day weeks from FAA, which is the only organization that collects this information.”

    I am positive NATCA and PASS is tracking this as well but I am sure it is below the GAO to not use information from a non government entity such as NATCA or PASS.

    “We reviewed the data that FAA provided and determined that it was sufficiently reliable for our purposes.”

    The word sufficient generally means barely meets standards. If you actually cared about you Mom or Dad flying around at FL350 and 450 kts head on with your co workers family members I am almost positive sufficiently reliable will haunt you for the rest of your days.

  9. For Aviators, GAO, FAA & DOT are Cut from the Same Cloth - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinon Says:

    [...] this DOT report also reminds me eerily of a discussion we had here just a few weeks ago about the General Accountability Office. Especially the part where you’ll learn that the DOT uses FAA data to support their [...]

  10. Knives on the Plane - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    [...] month, the Government Accountability Office (oh I do like these guys sometimes) released a report that seriously questioned whether anyone with their head screwed on straight was [...]

  11. Knives on the Plane | RENT-A-PLANE Says:

    [...] month, the Government Accountability Office (oh I do like these guys sometimes) released a report that seriously questioned whether anyone with their head screwed on straight was [...]

Subscribe without commenting