FAA Management is Frightening, Not the Airlines

By Robert Mark on March 27th, 2008

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.

FAA The reporter also hoped I reveal that some of those airplanes were unsafe and might soon fall from the sky.

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.

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15 Responses to “FAA Management is Frightening, Not the Airlines”

  1. Steve Says:

    Rob,

    From the latest article regarding Lou Dobb’s calling the FAA overworked professionals, it’s fairly clear you’re not the biggest fan of the current Executive Branch. Neither am I. I went through ATC CTI with the promise of the old pay scale, only to have OTS hiring start and pay slashed.

    But the economy is not yet in a state of Recession. And it’s certainly not in a “deepening recession.” A recession is two consecutive quarters of GDP decline. Sorry to tell you (and Lou Dobbs, Keith Olberman, etc) but our GDP has actually increased over the last two quarters. It hasn’t increased at the astonishing, unsustainable rate it had been increasing at, but it’s not receding.

    In an article denouncing the media’s hyperbole about the safety of airlines, you used some hyperbole about the safety of our economy. Aviation safety directly affects a fraction of Americans. The economy directly affects 99% of us.

    – Steve Perry

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Interesting comment Steve, but I take issue with your recession comment.

    Yes, you are correct that we do not meet the technical definition of a recession. But that doesn’t mean we are not experiencing a functional recession.

    But the point of my piece was not really to discuss the state of the economy at a time when gas and food prices have soared while real estate values have taken a huge plunge and debt levels all around the national are enormous.

    That’s probably a debate for another time.

    FAA is very good at diverting people’s attention. Right now it’s their tough stance against the airlines now.

    If your goal is safety, then yell at those operators.

    But when FAA makes an example of Southwest with a $10M fine, as they did with a U.S. charter operator late last year for almost another $10M, that says defense to me, not offense.

    FAA is trying to divert attention from their own internal problems … and there are many.

  3. Jeff martin Says:

    Mr. Marks, I find the timing of Delta and American’s cancellations kind of suspect. The FAA has been neglecting their oversight role for too long. The few safety inspectors have been trying to do their jobs only to be threatened and harassed by the FAA. The situation at Southwest becomes public and suddenly American and Delta take action? Sorry, but I have seen the results of the FAA being run like a business and this is all to familiar. The agency has been hiring executives from the airlines who treat the airlines like customers, not companies that require safety oversight and regulation. This is the result.

  4. Mark T Says:

    You have hit the nail on the head with this latest blog! The arrogance and incompetence that they display, has no one fooled, but themselves.

  5. faahope Says:

    Why only now are the airlines worrying about their planes?

    If congress had not started an investigation on the South west incident no one would be the wiser, because the FAA was not going to make them take planes out of service because it would have made their numbers for delays and cancelations worse than it was last year. Why are we letting the Fox watch the hen house? The Fox(FAA) doesn’t care anything about lives only money.

    Just look at “www.faahope.com” putting all vital radar systems in south Florida both high(ARTCC) and low(TRACON) 1.5 nautical miles apart. What a great idea for a backup system. I don’t think there is a business stupid enough to do that.

  6. rc Says:

    Yea Mr. Perry, when it affects that fraction it makes a hell of a bang and fire show

  7. Bob H Says:

    Good post Robert, I would like the opportunity to ask Sen. Oberstar if he could explain the difference between a Federal Aviation Regulation and a Statute.

    I believe the general public would be surprised to know that the FAA can not enforce any regulatory decision they make without taking an owner, mechanic or operator of an aircraft to court and letting the court decide whose interpretation of the regulations are correct.

    In other words a misguided Regulatory decision by the FAA that results in fines or loss of license privileges to a aircraft owner, mechanic or operator is little more than legalized extortion.

    I just wish that those who have the postion to make everyone aware, would start by making themselves aware before they get on their soapboxes and scare the daylights out of those who have even less of an idea of what is going on than the person telling them.

  8. D Says:

    I have been in the FAA for 17 years. I have never seen the incompetence that comes from this bunch. Not even close. They listen to the business minded bean counters and the polticos in DC that are only interested in theory (don’t have a clue how the system really works) and ideals. And trust me when i say their ideals have absolutely nothing to do with safety.

  9. air traffic controller Says:

    The prime directive in the Agency I work for (the FAA) is “make it look good.”

    To this end, the Agency has reclassified a whole category of dangerous events (runway incursions and near midair collisions) so that what used to qualify as an Operational Error (OE) is now a Proximity Event (PE). Poof. Now we have fewer OEs!

  10. DAB Says:

    “Safety at a reasonable cost”. FAA is playing Russian Roulette with the flying public.

  11. PNS Says:

    The FAA (not surprisingly) has been very reflective of the Bush administration. They don’t care what the people want. They change rules when they want… no matter the law. They have negatively impacted the lives of many working class americans. They will go down in history as a disaster. The very bad part is that they will leave their positions of power and not be held to account. We will still be here struggling… because we don’t have a choice!

  12. Don "Crude" Craig Says:

    Mr. Mark what else can I say but THANK YOU! Best article I have ever seen outside the Main Bang and FAA Follies that explains things as they really are and not what they (FAA) wish for the public to hear “safety was never compromised”.

    All it takes is one runway incursion to make a disaster, same thing with a operational error.

    I bet the folks that lost their lives in LEX and their families wish that runway incursion hadn’t taken place. Comair took an incursion onto a unlit, too short, runway at night which happened to be the wrong runway from which they were assigned.

    This meets the FAA definition of runway incursion:

    “Any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take off of aircraft.”

    Comair had an incorrect presence on the runway they attempted takeoff.

    The NAS is dying, thank goodness I got out when I did.

    Don Craig – D10 escapee 12/26/06

  13. 25 Year Air Traffic Controller Says:

    Nice post Bob!
    I have never been more disgusted with my employer as I am now. The agency is treating its controllers with disdain, they pad the salaries of management while controller pay is frozen and do nothing to properly staff the nation’s towers and approach controls. The quality of the FAA management is frightening. Thankfully the controllers in this country are and will continue to hold the air traffic system together. No one will ever have to worry about dedication and professionalism of America’s air traffic controllers in spite of the best efforts of FAA management to screw them.

  14. Jay Says:

    “Most business run in spite of management not because of it.” (B.Meana 1986)

  15. Don "Crude" Craig Says:

    Steve Perry … do you think we are in a recession yet?

    This has been building for years despite what you thought of GDP. It took this long to reach critical mass.

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