FAA’s Bobby Sturgell Deserves a Break …Maybe

By Robert Mark on July 7th, 2008

Close on the heels of this 4th of July comes the realization that the most heated presidential election we will probably see in our life times is really upon us. The relentless drum-beat from both nominees is that this nation is in serious need of some serious change.

While I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel with those who say the U.S. is busted, there is little doubt that the Congress has forgotten the meaning of the words leadership and compromise. No where does that seemingly worn out notion of leadership – or the lack of it – hit home more than at our own personal bunch of sky-bobbies, the FAA.

You’ve all heard me and many others beat these management folks up in the past year, whether it’s about the failure of the agency to negotiate some sort of settlement with the nation’s air traffic controllers, to the mess the inspectors uncovered with their bosses in Washington over how much self-policing the airlines should be allowed, to why a guy in a lawn chair over Idaho isn’t in jail for endangering the safety of the flying public after launching his balloon-powered seat over Oregon over this weekend. And don’t get me started on user fees and Next-Gen or the JPDO …

Peters - Sturgell The overall responsibility for all this FAA silliness ends up precisely where it should, on the desk of Bobby Sturgell, the man who would be administrator pictured here with his political appointee pal Mary Peters.

But for once, let’s cut Bobby a little slack … not too much though, because while Bobby has proven he’s great at making speeches – thirteen in the past three months in fact – he is not up to the job of evoking change at the agency, much less leading it anywhere. When I went through FAA Management School in Lawton OK 20 years ago, management of everything was the job to be learned, not leadership. It seems that little has changed.

So why show Bobby Sturgell any mercy?

Simple. Most of the chaos, especially the lack of progress on NextGen, the bring-them-to-their-knees negotiating style of the agency with NATCA and the even the ongoing lack of agency oversight of the airlines evolved out of five years of the Marion Blakey administration. Blakey was also big on ideas and talk, but very short on how to make it all happen. blakeyx She was hand-picked by George Bush you may recall, a man who has also left many other federal agencies without leaders as well due to a severe lack of his own strategery.

During the inspector controversy last month, we learned at how good the top level agency folks are at finding real work after they leave federal service. What those managers – Blakey now heads the powerful Aerospace Industries Association – leave behind is an agency wandering even more than before they arrived as did Blakey.

So what do we do now since the agency is clearly going to wander at least until a new president takes office next January?

Easy. It’s time industry got behind not just a new man or woman as the political appointee of the day to FAA. It’s time they started figuring out who the industry leaders are and why they are good leaders and then try to pass that on to the candidates before we vote. The industry would get behind the right person if only there were a leader to follow. But it is not simply going to all work out unless we all make the effort for change this election around.

Speeches have their place in the world, but our industry is in serious trouble right now as the air travel world we’ve all come to know changes right before our eyes. We need a leader in 2009, not another manager.


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14 Responses to “FAA’s Bobby Sturgell Deserves a Break …Maybe”

  1. John J. Tormey III, Esq. Says:

    Thanks Rob – and you know my reaction. The “break” that “Bobby” Sturgell should get, is a clean break from his current employ. The problems in our country’s aviation system are roughly co-terminous with Sturgell’s Year 2003 “ascent” to the FAA. Blakey was but a publicist-functionary. Blame the Stooge Sturgell who pushed the buttons, and pushed them badly. No mercy.

  2. anonymous Says:

    So, let me get this straight, Sturgell gets cut some slack because it’s not his fault that he hasn’t accomplished anything positive during his tenure as Assistant and now Acting Administrator? I agree with Mr. Tormey ~ no break, no slack, no mercy!

  3. Robert Mark Says:

    Ouch. You guys are tough. I didn’t think I was letting Bobby off the hook much at all, but maybe I’d better go back and read this again, because I wasn’t trying to.

    What’s really important is not to forget that the roots of most of the problems we fact today were sown during Marion Blakey’s administration.

    Bobby just has no idea of how to fix them.

  4. Donna Says:

    Are you really suggesting in this piece that Bobby Sturgell is the right man for the job?

    That would be a slap in the face to all the hard-working people who keep the skies safe daily. It sounds like you are implying that poor leadership is better than no leadership at all.

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    It seems as if my attempt to be too clever with my writing has fallen flat on its face.

    No Donna, I was never attempting to convince readers that Sturgell is an adequate substitute for a leader.

    What I was talking about is that the problems we face today began before Sturgell took over and will be here after he leaves.

    I want to convince folks that it is important to begin talking now about the kind of person who takes Sturgell’s place … and that the person needs to be a leader, which neither Sturgell of Blakey have been.

  6. Moe Zurgerburger Says:

    In my opinion the FAA debacle, as with the operation of the federal government in general, is a product of deliberate design. It’s no secret that a big part of the President’s ideology lays in the concept that government is bad and that the private sector should be allowed to run government services and functions.

    In the example of the FAA the idea is that the running and modernization of the NAS is in such a mess that it cannot be fixed under current conditions, thus making the case that the government is simply not up to the task. Take any disinterested third party and have them peer into all of the hubbub that’s going on in the FAA nowadays and I’ll bet that they’d declare that the FAA is unfixable under its current structure. So why not privatize the whole thing, right?

    Furthermore, take a look at an interview with the Secretary of the D.O.T., Mary Peters in the June issue of the US Airways in-flight magazine (pg.43).


    I’m sure that Ms. Peters is a delightful person but after reading that article one can clearly see that she is absolutely clueless when it comes to the National Aerospace System and this lady gives Mr. Sturgell his marching orders, which he dutifully follows. I believe that this is nothing more than a continuation of a designated “road map” that has been conducted for the last 5 or 6 years now. Mr. Sturgell’s role as an agent provocateur deserves no slack.

  7. ZTL Says:

    It has become apparant to me that the authors of this post have about as much knowledge of the reality of the Air traffic Control system’s demise as they do about the quality of leadership currently in place at the FAA.

  8. Donna Says:

    Thanks for your response.

    I am a retired (1 year ago) controller from Orlando Int’l. I served for several years in a volunteer capacity as the N. FL legislative coordinator for NATCA.

    I have seen administrators come and go over my 30 years combined military (USAF) and federal service. The best one, who understood the needs of the workers and the flying public was Jane Garvey.

    I am not just saying this because NATCA made great strides while she was in office. After meeting many of the FAA’s political appointees, Pena, Hinson, Dole, Garvey, Blakey, etc. the only one who actually would spend time really listening was Jane. The others only pretended and they always tried, like most politicians, to convince you that they were going to do something or follow up, or make life better for you.

    The only one with real follow-through was Jane. I know from talking with Jane that her college background was an English major. She wasn’t entrenched in the aviation industry, beholden to special interests. She understood people.

    That is what is sorely needed in the FAA and in government. Government is supposed to be “for the people”. Somewhere along the line, politicians have forgotten this, doing only what is needed to get re-elected, or find a gravy position to get into after getting out of political office, as in the case of Marion.

  9. Robert Mark Says:

    And your point is what precisely ZTL?

    We’re all listening.

  10. Jeff Martin Says:

    While much of this is Blakey’s mess, Sturgell is convinced she was on the right track. He enthusiastically implemented many of her programs and continues to stay the course. You’ll have a hard time finding any safety critical FAA employees willing to cut this moron any slack.

    Jeff Martin

  11. Ian Says:

    The article with Ms. Peters is nothing more than a fluff piece, and a chance for US Air (and, by extension the ATA) to push their “message” onto unsuspecting readers. It’s clear that she is clueless as to how the NAS operates. As far as the leadership goes, that is something that goes from the top down. It starts with the President, and works its way down to the lowest levels of government. Without a Strong leader in the White House, there’s no hope of having strong leaders heading DOT or FAA. Mary Peters and Bobert Sturgell are simply spouting the party line.

  12. Paul Says:

    Um… while the problems do indeed stem from the Blakey era at the FAA, you appear to forget- Blakey’s right-hand man, as Asst. Administrator… Bobby Sturgell.

    The reality is this: Sturgell and Blakey were both political appointees who were put into place to intentionally implement a politically motivated and ideologically driven agenda.

    That agenda comes straight from the top- President Bush, and his transportation/aviation think-tank team.

    When you look at the obvious pro-corporate, anti-worker, anti-labor, and couldn’t-care-less-about-the-public results of the agenda, and compare the results with the stated objectives of many of the so-called “experts” (like Poole or Utt) who’ve been ranting about the “need” for change in aviation/transportation policy for decades, it becomes clear: These people did exactly what they set out to do.

    The fact that it’s not working is because the policy itself is terribly flawed, and because the nitwits they put in charge are too blinded by ideology to admit it.

  13. Donna Says:

    Paul, you absolutely hit the nail on the head. Robert Poole (Reason Foundation) wants the roads, railroads and control of the skies privatized. The only winners in that game are the businesses that run them, not the consumers who will pay more and more for them forever. How often do they give back a toll road, once it has been established? Once something is no longer deemed an inherently governmental service which seems easy to do these days with political maneuvering and I suspect a little palm- greasing. It becomes fair game for the vultures. Many of the vultures worked for the gov’t at some point and now run those business. Think RVA (Robinson-VanVuren).You are seeing the results of the suggested policies on the roads in the new “congestion pricing” tolls that are being enacted on toll roads in California and that are being considered in DC and other places. It’s obvious you know what you are talking about. For those who don’t know who Robert Poole is, check out the Reason Foundation’s web site. It will scare you. He is one of Bush’s advisors on transportation issues.

  14. Aviation writer Says:

    Repeat after me…. There is No Such Thing as NextGen….. There is No Such Thing as NextGen…

    Please can we not buy into the airline/FAA myth that there is no modernization underway, and that big changes need to happen to get to “nextgen.” Next Gen was a term invented by an unnecessary review panel, collecting together several iniatives that were basically already underway.

    Suddenly it was seized upon by: a)the airlines, as a convenient excuse for delays caused by rampant overscheduling, and b) the Bush administration as a convenient reason for their FAA funding reform agenda.

    The fact is, FAA is in the middle of the largest ATC modernization program in its history (ERAM, ATOP, URET, STARS/ARTS, anyone?). Its just naieve to think there is a magic bullet sitting out there on the shelf, and all it needs is the money.

    Another point: sure, we dont have an entire system based on ADS-B. But nobody else does either.

    Please, lets not blindly accept the airline/FAA spin like all the mainstream media seems to have.

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