The new FAA: Will we?

By Robert Mark on January 7th, 2009

FAA jetwhine It’s another frosty night in Chicago, but I stayed at work late to write because the issue of who will become the next FAA Administrator is really gnawing at me. Like the November election, this administrator choice is going to be an important one because it’s high time we called the agency what it truly is, or at least has been for most of the past two years … functionally locked in a dysfunctional holding pattern. Despite thousands of hard-working people – yes, even a few are my friends – and a rich history, my guess is Bobby Sturgell’s pseudo-administrator role will make history as one of the least-effective in 50 years … 52 speeches in 2008 and plenty of promises, but few other tangible results.

In all fairness, Bobby doesn’t deserve all the heat for being stuck between a rock and a hard place. The ultimate responsibility rests squarely with the White House. In addition to FAA, President Bush left dozens of other federal agencies similarly leaderless. The new FAA administrator will have his or her work cut out for them. Realistically though, we should be worried because with the state of the economy, transportation and aviation specifically, may not rank as high on the list as we’d like.

President-Elect Obama chose Republican Ray LaHood from Illinois for DOT Secretary, a move that should be making plenty of aviation people a tad uncomfortable right now, because LaHood is no aviation guy. But he does seem to be good at funding projects. These days, of course, almost every politician seems ready to write a check for almost any amount, so that might not mean as much as it used to.

To us, the men and women to whom aviation is not just a job, but a life, the administrator will be critical, probably more critical than at any time since the agency was formed. Take your pick of the problems we face that have nothing to do with the economy; the TSA’s Large Aircraft Security program that threatens to homogenize the face of business by putting us as far behind the eight ball as the airlines, or the ATC system improvement plan that FAA has been talking about for 20 years, or the need to sit down and settle a number of grueling employee labor issues that affect tens of thousands of agency workers … and hence us.

These days, the folks in charge at FAA make it sound like technology will fix just about everything that ails us. But new technologies alone won’t fix this industry and certainly not this agency. People will fix the problems. Dealing with people has never been FAA’s strong suit though because the place has been built by thousands of ex-military leaders who long ago forgot that ordering people around doesn’t work very well. Just ask the controller or inspectors unions. Emanuel JetwhineThey’ve basically been shoved into a corner for two years. And labor negotiations are going to be pretty tough this year, despite a Democratic administration. Count on it.

At his blog SimpliFlying Shashank Nigam wrote about a few of the lessons the airline industry could learn from the presidential campaign of incoming President Barack Obama. The same sorts of people-based marketing lessons could be just what the FAA needs to shake off the dusty ambivalence of the past 10 years. But that is going to take something the agency has lacked for a long time, serious leadership.

Will Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel and the DOT Secretary crawl as far out on a limb for change by real hiring leaders as they seem to have done in some other departments? Right now, we’re all sitting here with our fingers crossed, hoping the new administration, even with all the other major issues on its plate, will not be hasty in their decision by choosing a leader who knows little of the problems we face. We hope Mr. Obama chooses someone who is more than a friend of a friend. We need more than an administrator, we need a solid leader (Sorry, I think I used FAA and leader more than once in that sentence. It all just got away from me.)

Mr. Obama’s campaign slogan was an easy, engaging one, “Yes we can.” For the sake of the people who have helped U.S. aviation become the most impressive example of air transportation in the world, I’m think we need to alter that just a bit. “Yes we can,” needs to morph into something more like, “We sure as hell better.”


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19 Responses to “The new FAA: Will we?”

  1. Jeffrey Sigmon Says:

    I wish Mr. LaHood good luck. As always, it will be interesting to see what changes and what doesn’t.

  2. Dale Kettring Says:

    We are all just holding our collective breaths waiting to hear who Obama nominates as FAA Administrator.



  3. Scott Davies Says:

    Sir –
    You’ve made many very solid points on that blog. As you imply, I surely agree that America’s commercial air transportation system is a critical enabler and multiplier of GDP growth. As such, we must not tolerate its future being left to politics as usual; especially in the current economic climate.

    I share your frustration and concern about Mr. LaHood. For a post with such an important role to play in real job creation, the announcement of Mr. LaHood as our future DOT secretary was very late in surfacing. This makes me wonder if our new administration understands the importance of commercial aviation infrastucture in generating GDP.

    In addition, Mr. LaHood himself seems to me just another Illinois pol. He may be a very respectable man and someone with congressional ‘purse string’ experience. And of course, he is filling the slot as the token bipartisan Republican. But I have not seen anything on his resume that indicates to me he is a man of great leadership and aviation vision who will be able to tame the entrenched FAA dragon, which eats pols and administrators for lunch. I hope that I am wrong. Time will tell.

    Lastly, a note about Mr. Sturgell, the departing acting FAA administrator. I differ a bit on your conclusion about his effectiveness.

    First, I cannot imagine a worse situation to be in as acting FAA administrator than to be stuck as an unwilling poker chip between the Republicans and the Democrats. True as you indicate, the Bush administration did not succeed in getting him confirmed.

    But that does not exonerate Jim Oberstar and the Democrats from blocking his confirmation in a pitifully selfish effort to prevent an honest readjustment of air traffic controller union wages.

    In an interesting twist, Mr. Oberstar will now have to work with another Republican at the DOT. This makes me ponder whether the fix is already in regarding what to do about controller wages.

    My best regards.
    – Scott Davies

  4. Dave Drumm Says:

    The Obama Congress is tossing around the idea of ‘putting the brakes on’ the Digital TV transition (Feb.17 )…. to give them a ‘little more time’.

    I have to admit that I’m not sure of any aviation industry ‘pressing matters’ but…. I’d assume if there are… the same treatment can be expected.

  5. Rob Mark Says:

    Superb response Scott. Transportation always seems to be an afterthought to the White House. This is irritating.

    Your thoughts about Sturgell … an honest readjustment of wages? I never thought that was the point. To me, it seemed as if it was more about control. FAA held the line on wages by denying any raises didn’t they? But what did it cost the agency? Thousands of experienced controllers leaving a sinking ship. Anyone in business knows it costs ten times more money to bring in new employees as it does to keep the ones you already have. So again, what did the agency save? That was Bobby’s decision wasn’t it?

  6. J.E. Murdoch III Says:

    Dear Mr. Mark–

    Before commenting on the thrust of your inquiry, let me address one tangential comment made in your blog and that is your aspersions about Bobby Sturgell. First, while he was Deputy, he was hidden from the public’s eye (part of the job description for a Deputy) and performed great service to Next Gen and most of the technical programs.

    As an Administrator, Bobby is one of the most qualified individuals to sit in that chair. We have had very few ATPs who would take a massive cut in salary to provide the sorts of insights unique to pilots. He had extensive experience in the arcane ways of the FAA’s regulatory processes. Most importantly, he had his hands tied. Once the Senate had passed over his nomination, the bureaucrats fell easily in the “we’ll wait till the next guy shows up” mode. Marion was a superb leader, but it is unquestionable that she left with the NATCA relationship on fire. Not of his making, but Bobby paid the price once the Democrats regained control of Congress.

    Now to the Obama situation– a cabinet is an unusual organization. An administration announces its true priorities in the people selected to fill the jobs. Not all cabinet seats are treated equally. A Democratic President who appoints a Republican as a Secretary is saying that this seat is not as important as others. Rep. LaHood has been a Republican all of his life; he is not a political operative on whom the Obama Administration can and will depend.

    NextGen’s implementation will require a strong Secretary and an able Administrator to push that aviation critical multi-billion dollars plan, and the associated funding, through OMB; to get industry consensus; and to compel Congress to enact. Secretary LaHood will not have the clout in the Oval Office to get it done.

    As to who will be the Administrator, one important lesson can be gained from the past horse races to 800 Independence Ave. The early leaders, names like the able, highly regarded Clay Foushee, rarely win.

    There is one possibility that may actually make things worse– an Administrator who has better hooks with the President than the Secretary. A subordinate who has reach one level above the boss is never conducive to a good working relationship. The Secretary can not fully trust the Administrator and under such circumstances, little is likely to get accomplished.

  7. Rob Mark Says:

    Excellent comments JE.

    Qualified – as in the case of Bobby Sturgell – is in the eyes of the beholder. He may well be a superbly qualified airman, but as you seem to imply, a leader who cannot make all the parties come together is not a leader, whether it’s because of their own issues or being shoved into a corner the way Mr. Sturgell was.

    Regards Mr. LaHood, you hit the nail right on the head. His selection indicates the job is not seen as terribly important. And I also agree that NexGen is going to need a strong captain at the helm. I simply don’t see it as LaHood, despite all the dancing the trade groups have been doing to try and make friends. But maybe he’ll surprise us.

    I think the chances for change are more likely to come from a dynamic administrator. Whether the next acting administrator they just named is anyone’s guess. I’d prefer to see someone who was chosen from outside the agency rather than move up the next person in line.

    Thanks for your comment.


  8. Robert Mark Says:

    Thanks for your comment Dave.

    Problem is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of industry problems around the nation that don’t on the surface appear directly related to the economy, the current “Third Rail.” Your digital TV example is simply one more.

    But, of course, we ought to give these folks at least a day or two after they sign in on the 20th before we take them to task. Now the 22nd … we can get nuts.


  9. Greg Mudd Says:

    If anything happens for the positive in Aviation or more specifically, General Aviation, it will be solely up to us who are dedicated to it.

    I don’t have any confidence that our government is capable or willing to put forth any effort in really improving the Aviation industry.

  10. Michael Gaughan Says:

    Interesting thoughts Robert. The FAA is going to have some very interesting years ahead and they are going to require a steady hand to guide them. The comments about the old military leaders running the FAA and ordering people around is an excellent example of the many problems that exist.

    In Canada we don’t have nearly the traffic that exists within the US and Transport Canada has a much easier job to deal with; and by easy I mean in context to dealing with thousands of movements a day and dealing with hundreds of thousands of lives.

    What do you believe will be the biggest challenge that the FAA is going to face over the next year? Upgrading ATC? Managing the unions? Or will there be something else that will require even more attention?

  11. Adam Webster Says:

    I’d just be happy with “change we can believe in.”

    So far, not too much change w/ Mr. O. (No torture accountability, letting TELCOs off the hook for snooping, etc., printing money as needed for fiat money to run US economy.)

    Let’s hope he steps it up a bit and sticks with campaign pledges.

  12. Scott Davies Says:

    True what you say. There can be a ‘cost’ to saving cash by watching your most highly paid workers walk out the door. Some of my recollection of the sequence of events may be a bit muddied.

    However, in the end I was left with the impression that certain congressmen from around New York city, as well as Mr. Oberstar, were holding Mr. Sturgell hostage against any further changes to controller work rules or compensation, in addition to holding the line on needed progressive changes in our air traffic structure.

    I don’t believe this bodes well for the change we need in America’s air transportation infrastructure.

    My best regards.
    – Scott Davies

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

    The bottom line is that Bobby Sturgell was the worst FAA Administrator in the FAA’s 50-year history – and now, Bobby Sturgell slithers away, no matter how many of his old Shaw Pittman law partners he leaves behind to cyber-front for him in his slimy contrail wake.


    Quiet Rockland “welcomes” Virginia’s own Lynne A. Osmus f/k/a Lynne Dobler of W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, now, new FAA NecroDeputyActing Administrator:

    John J. Tormey III, Esq.
    Quiet Rockland

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

    Also, for Mr. Davies: It was Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey who put the Hold on Bobby Sturgell’s confirmation such that the matter didn’t even exit the CST Committee on which Senator Lautenberg sits, and therefore the vote on Sturgell never even hit the Senate floor. Senator Menendez of New Jersey also put a Hold on Sturgell’s confirmation, and then Senator Chuck Schumer of New York piled on with a Hold, too.

  15. Rick Says:

    Geez Scott, if you were still at ZOA would you still be seeking “an honest readjustment of air traffic controller union wages”? Honestly?

  16. zabnut Says:

    “an honest readjustment of air traffic controller union wages”

    Is that what we call imposing work and pay rules, being honest? The union was willing to give in on wages but not pay freezes.

    I haven’t had a raise in my base in THREE YEARS, yet my “boss” that has working in the agency for 5 years TOTAL (19 years less than me) makes more than I do and continues to get pay increases.

    If it was about saving any money I would be all for it, Any chance of saving money is wasted on $15K printer that is only used ONCE per quarter (No joke), $10K Plasma (already burned in) flat screens X 12 (again NO JOKE), $100K landscaping to remove rocks and install different color rocks that already had sand and trash in them, management promotions and bonuses.

    When the traffic increases and the ill prepared young ones start having more and more near mid airs and causing accidents, the flying public will be crying for more experienced help…TOO LATE.

    Wal-Mart WAGES=Wal-Mart turnover

    Hardly anybody that is new is dedicated to the job, they are trying to get their ticket and go apply to a DOD job for more money. Even Lockmart pays more than ATC controllers to just read weather and input flight pans, what a joke.

  17. Thomas Sullivan Says:

    Hey Murdoch,
    What are you smoking?

    How you say a man is qualified for the job when he so utterly fails on the job – both as #2 under Blakey and as #1 – the “Acting” administrator.

    The list of scandals that “Bobby” presided over read like a laundry list of government agency revolving door corruption.
    – the blakey/sturgell faa dropped the ball is taking action to prepare for massive wave of ATC retirements.
    – the blakey/sturgell is responsible for exacerbating the ATC situation by treating the ATC’s like garbage causing many hundreds to retire early.
    – the blakey/sturgell faa – caused and defended the “cozy” relationship with the airlines that allowed hundreds of planes to fly with cracks, faulty wiring and other dangerous problems.
    – the faa under sturgell/blakey tried to hide the fact that there has been over 3383 aviation deaths since sturgell joined the faa in 2003.
    – the sturgell/blakey faa allowed many scandals like the snafu at DFW where FAA mgmt tried to hide errors – even blaming some on pilots.
    – the sturgell/blakey faa stomped over the rights of millions of taxpayers across this Country with regard only to the airlines and the aviation industry. Folks from California to NY, from Florida to Pennsylvania have had to deal with the aftermath of what could only be called a criminal violation of their rights.

    There’s your qualifications!

    …and don’t get me started on Blakey – the failed publicist. Oh, how it smells rotten. Rotten that she could leave the FAA such a mess and then go work as a lobbyist for the companies she used be in charge of regulating. She should find no friends in the halls of congress and should be shunned by all respectable elected officials.

    But Mr. Murdoch, maybe you know a thing or two about these kinds of situations?

  18. zabnut Says:

    All I know is we need someone that is NOT a former commercial pilot or a propaganda queen in the upper ranks of the FAA. Anybody that says Blakey did a good job other than scamming the system and blowing smoke up people’s skirts was apparently taken aback by her sheer attractiveness.

    Here is a list of failed former commercial pilots that helped ruin the FAA.

    Russ Chew (American) went on to Jet blue until they figured out he was incompetent. Oh, how they bragged that Jet Blue had snagged an FAA “insider” to help scam favors (He was to be the Faa liaison, which is inappropriate at best) I laughed and laughed and waved him a one finger wave of good riddance. Instead of making a single thing better he set up a computer to see who was plugged in and on what sector in every facility in the nation. WASTE OF MONEY.

    Hankie Kankhouseski (United) has done absolutely nothing. He said he was going into the field but only visited offices with other managers. I have nothing else really to say about such a worthless individual. He is just picking up a pay check from what I can tell.

    Sturgeel (United) was in deep with Blakey in most of the mess she concocted, then claimed ignorance in front of congress in bold face and blatant lies.

    I have to ask, why would these senior former pilots making $200K+ working an average of 20 hours a week, step into a 9-5 work week in Washington no less, making “only” $160K for 40+ hours per week?

    My take is the 3 named above where not interested in making anyone’s life better or improving the FAA in any shape or form, they where looking at padding a resume and step on heads if that is what it takes.

  19. Jose de Leon Says:

    The 2 biggest things that will be facing the FAA in the upcoming years will be funding and direction. With a new administration, we hope funding will finally be approved by way of an Reauthorization Bill.

    Operating on Continuing Resolutions has been detrimental to the FAA but more importantly to the airports that service the flying public – domestically and internationally. As for the direction, the FAA cannot change its direction of the Service Area at this point; however, with a new administration soon to be in place, it remains to be seen what (if any) radical decisions will be made.

    Only time will tell. Sadly, that is what we have been hearing for quite sometime.

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