I had a call today from one of the major TV networks.
The reporter was hoping I’d sit in front of a TV camera for a story about the grounding of hundreds of Delta and American Airlines MD-80 flights in the wake of another FAA airline maintenance crackdown.
I told them thanks and to have a nice day.
I also said I doubted they’d find anyone who thought any of this current crop of airplanes were unsafe, any more than any of the Southwest Airlines airplanes were unsafe a few weeks ago.
These TV guys really missed the point I think. Then tonight, CNN’s Lou Dobbs ran a similar story and told the audience that the FAA was really just a solid bunch of overworked professionals.
Oh please Lou. Overworked?
Air Traffic Controllers yes. Technicians yes. Inspectors yes.
But what an insult to tens of thousands of FAA employees to lump them in with the people in Washington that run the agency. Does no one else smell a rat here? Guess what color the house is that gives the FAA and the U.S. DOT its marching orders?
This recent maintenance crackdown by FAA is not about some sudden new concern for airline passengers and air safety.
It’s really a not very sophisticated smoke and mirrors show designed to take the heat off the agency and put it squarely where it belongs … anywhere except on the people in Washington who run the FAA.
The crisis at FAA is really about the way top executives there think and then act … or as some critics explain it, “they shoot first and aim second.” The people running FAA are the ones who scare me. And they should be the folks who scare the public too.
FAA Feels Our Pain
FAA is particularly sensitive to criticism and embarrassment although they seem to have little idea of how anyone might see the agency as less than stellar.
In a speech on air safety yesterday, acting FAA administrator Bobby Sturgell – yes the same fellow the Senate passed on transforming into the permanent administrator – said, the system has had 14 serious runway incursions so far this year, but that only three involved commercial airliners. And no one has been hurt anyway (A runway incursion is any time a vehicle or another airplane enters a runway when an aircraft is landing or taking off).
I am now feeling a whole lot better.
Of course, I’ll bet the folks driving those little airplanes that make up the other 11 incursions might not be sleeping too well but their lives are not near as important as those folks in the airlines getting all the FAA scrutiny these days … the same airlines that claim the FAA is forcing too much of the agency’s cost on them because they don’t use that much of the system in the first place.
While Sturgell said that no incursion is OK, he added that, “14 is a tiny fraction considering the millions of takeoffs and landings that have gone on. A passenger would have to board a U.S. commercial flight every day for 10,470 years before having the probability of being involved in a serious runway incursion. Knowing that, it hardly sounds like it’s time to push the panic button …”
In another arena, FAA has managed to alienate a significant portion of the workforce it claims to so desperately need to save the public from the unsafe practices of the airlines.
Air traffic controllers had a set of work rules shoved down their throats, as did radio technicians. Experienced employees have begun retiring early rather than continue to work for the folks in Washington under rules they had no input to. Now that should really scare passengers because these folks walking out the door are collectively taking thousands of years of aviation experience with them. FAA has arrogantly refused to even talk to these people.
Now where in Washington do you think the FAA executives learned that little tactic?
Most recently as the Southwest Airlines story came to light, almost no one noticed that the FAA inspectors who keep an eye on the airlines were also embroiled in a major labor dispute with their employer. Anyone else wonder if that’s how all of this sudden interest in airline maintenance might have begun?
No one can argue that skyrocketing fuel prices have burdened the airlines as well as a deepening recession. And just to make sure everyone understands who is really still in charge, you have the FAA inflicting a little pain on Southwest, United, Delta and American, and to show the agency is on the ball.
Aviation is Mad as Hell
Many might ask why the airlines don’t simply fight back if these inspections are unfair.
The reason is simple. Pretend this argument was about the IRS for a second.How many people are willing to screw around with the tax folks?
Few simply because the IRS can do ugly things to people it doesn’t like, such as confiscate property or clean out a bank account. Even if you’re right, the feds can hold you and your assets up in court for years.
The airlines are smart enough to know they can’t afford that kind of distraction, so they buckle. Passenger delays and trip cancellation chaos for a few days is unavoidable for the airlines. But it’s sure better than having the FAA walk in and shut a carrier down because some airline executive looked at some agency person the wrong way. Business aviation watched just that kind of shut down of a charter company a few months ago, so the possibility is very real.
And I really hope the business aviation folks don’t think these inspections are confined only to the airlines, because FAA could just as easily turn around and come back at you very quickly.
Bobby really wanted that job.