How Contracting Government Gets People Killed—Part I

By far my most popular blogs have to date dealt with aviation safety, and the most popular of all was my three-part series on Why Southwest’s Boeings Keep Coming Apart Above 30,000 Feet (Links to Part I, Part II, and Part III of that series).  Well, you know what they say . . . don’t reward bad behavior.  Since my biggest “reward” in terms of viewership was that three-part series dealing with corruption, incompetence, and aviation safety, it was obvious all along to me that I would at some point have to try to duplicate that success.  And as with that previous series, this one is also derived from The Tombstone Agency, an expose I wrote back in 2008 but which was deemed by several New York publishing houses to be too terrifying to publish.

Lately, the conversation making the rounds on Capitol Hill is on the contracting out of essential government services in order to save money.  Don’t fall for it.  It’s been done before.  It didn’t save a dime (actually, it cost money, as you’ll soon see).  The only people to benefit were the shareholders of the company involved and the government employees who precipitated this fraud on the taxpayers.  Safety and security were degraded to dangerous levels as a direct result.  People died, and you’re going to be shocked when I name one very famous person who is no longer with us, and who may very well have been a victim of this scam.

Thus, I present to you Part I of this week’s series, derived from Chapter Seven of The Tombstone Agency, a chapter that was entitled The Rise and Fall of the Federal Aviation Administration (All data presented factually correct at the time of writing in 2008—and most of it has only gotten worse since):

How does a federal agency with regulatory responsibility for all aspects of civil aviation with the United States, from air traffic control, to new aircraft certification, to maintaining existing aircraft, to licensing pilots and mechanics, to certifying airlines as safe to fly, come to this point?  Why would anyone think their responsibilities lay in placating airline executives and aircraft manufacturers to the detriment and safety of the flying public?  The answer lies in a shift in regulatory philosophy brought into play by the one person who should have known better, a person who arrived to the Agency after a stint as chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board—Marion C. Blakey, the fifteenth Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

“One thing that we’ve heard over and over is that we need to be more consistent with our customers. You can get one answer from one FAA office or region and another from another.

“So, I’m announcing today a new customer-service initiative that provides written guidance and training to all managers and supervisors in our regulation and certification offices throughout the country on applying FAA rules and policies in a standard and consistent manner. And, we want to know from our customers if we’re not being consistent. We’re going to let them know that they have the right to ask for review on any inspector’s decision on any call that’s made in the certification process… that they can ‘buck it up’ to first-line supervisors, field office managers, regional division managers, or even to Washington if necessary—with no fear of retribution. Information on how to do this—names, titles, and phone numbers—will be prominently displayed on the Web and in all our regional and field offices. We need your help to make this program a success.”

—FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey
Speech before the Aero Club of Washington, D.C.
February 20, 2003

Marion C. Blakey arrived to the Federal Aviation Administration September 13, 2002.  She found a more or less adequately functioning agency with certain problem areas.

One of those, the Air Traffic Control System, is a chronic problem area inherited by all administrators because of inadequate funding, medieval management philosophies and techniques, an aging workforce, and a scandalously poor record in the area of control system upgrades in everything from communications to radar displays to runway safety enhancements.  Just as an example, the Advanced Automation System (AAS) contract was cancelled in the mid-90s after years of delays and anywhere from $2.5-billion to $8-billion in initial costs plus overruns, a spread of $5.5-billion in taxpayers’ money that cannot be narrowed down any further because of the agency’s incredibly inept system of accounting.

The one area that has not been considered a problem was Flight Standards, the dedicated people responsible for certifying new aircraft, overseeing the maintenance and airworthiness of existing aircraft, and the regulation of air taxis, air ambulance services, cargo haulers, and air carriers.  Indeed, in this area the FAA had long been considered the world leader, the gold standard of aircraft certification and airline regulation.  There have been a few blights on this record over the decades — the politically tainted certification of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 comes to mind — but such blights were once extremely rare and exceedingly far apart.  As you have seen, this rarity is no longer the case.

Of course if you are one of the entities regulated by such dedicated and professional people — an aircraft manufacturer trying to beat a competitor to market with a new Very Light Jet (VLJ), or an airline balancing the imperative to adequately maintain your fleet with the desire to make quarterly expectations on Wall Street — you might differ in this assessment.  And in a pro-business administration very basic definitions, such as who are your ‘customers,’ might very well become skewed.  In Marion C. Blakey’s FAA, this definition wasn’t just skewed; it was shot, mounted, and hung over Marion Blakey’s fireplace mantle.

Referring to the excerpt above from Ms. Blakey’s first major speech as FAA Administrator it becomes quickly evident that the customer in Marion Blakey’s FAA was no longer the taxpayer.  The customer was not the mother herding her two toddlers aboard a Southwest Airlines jet trusting that her government was doing its job to ensure the structural integrity of the fuselage on her Boeing 737.  The customer was not the transplant patient awaiting a time-critical, life-saving kidney being transported in an Eclipse 500 air taxi.  The customer was not an aged, lonely grandmother flying off to visit her grandchildren aboard an AirTran airliner, assuming that nothing life-threatening was being improperly transported in the cargo hold beneath her delicate, aged feet.  The customers were now aircraft manufacturers, aerospace companies, and most notably in the previously cited cases, the airlines.  Indeed, for a comprehensive list of the FAA’s ‘customers’ under Administrator Blakey, one need only consider any entity with the word ‘airline’ in its name or any of the 105 regular and 187 associate members of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).

So let us take a look at the uncomfortably close relationship among the former FAA Administrator’s newly defined ‘customers’ and the Administrator herself.

The FAA Administrator is a unique position within the U.S. government.  Like most such positions, this one requires a nomination from the president and confirmation by the Senate.  But unlike most other positions, the FAA Administrator serves a set five-year term rather than the customary, ‘at the pleasure of the President,’ limitation of most other political appointments.  In other words, the FAA Administrator cannot be fired at the whim of the president.  Marion Blakey was only the second administrator to serve such a five-year term, coming into the position after Jane Garvey.  This change came about ostensibly to take the politics out of the position and to ensure continuity between administrations.  Under the George W. Bush Administration this concept failed miserably.

Ms. Blakey’s five-year reign of incompetence, corruption, and greed ended on September 13, 2007.  In those five years the agency failed to upgrade ancient air traffic control equipment, let ongoing upgrades inherited from the previous Administrator’s stewardship fall into neglect as contractors found they no longer needed abide by their contractual obligations, redefined its customers, all but stopped regulating those customers, declared war on its own employees, created a staffing crisis within the air traffic control division that will endanger lives, property, and national security for perhaps a generation, and created a revolving door of employment for managers shuttling from government to high-paying industry-insider jobs that betrays the public trust.

A prime example of this revolving door is former Administrator Blakey herself.  The tale begins with something called NextGen—an acronym for the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System.  It was sold by Administrator Blakey to the airlines, Congress, and the American people as the answer to all their airline delay problems.  The promise is a system that will allow aircraft to fly directly to their destinations without the need to follow sometimes circuitous routes using ground-based navigational aids defining the highways in the sky known below 18,000 feet as Victor Airways, or in the flight levels (18,000 feet and higher) as Jet Routes.  She also promised higher capacity within the National Airspace System (NAS).

NextGen will deliver on none of these promises.  It cannot.  Former Administrator Marion Blakey, her hand-picked successor Acting Administrator Bobby Sturgell, the FAA spokespersons who continue to shill for NextGen, and Blakey’s point man in Congress, Representative John C. Mica, know that it cannot.  They are, in fact, intentionally lying to you and to the airlines.

Airspace is not and never has been the primary cause of delays within the United States.  This was dramatically proven on January 20, 2005.  On that date the required vertical separation between aircraft operating from Flight Level 290 (29,000 feet) through FL 410 was reduced from 2,000 feet to only 1,000.  This basically doubled the amount of airspace available in the strata most commonly used by airliners.  An immediate doubling of available airspace, according to Marion Blakey’s rationale for NextGen, should have immediately reduced delays by at least half.  Delays however did not go down; they went up.  Delays continually set new records through 2007 and well into 2008 before the high price of fuel and developing recession sent traffic numbers plummeting.  And all this is despite the fact that most aircraft today are already equipped to fly direct routes even without NextGen, using a technology called GPS.

Why did delays increase?  Because airspace capacity is not the problem.  Airport capacity is.  The amount of traffic an airport can safely handle is known as its Acceptance Rate.  This number is based upon the number of runways available and the configuration of those runways.  If the runways cross, that reduces the Acceptance Rate.  If the flight paths to runways cross, that reduces the Acceptance Rate.  If taxiways cross runways rather than going around the ends at distances safe enough to conduct simultaneous runway operations, that reduces the Acceptance Rate.

Other factors also come into play.  If the airport has noise abatement procedures, that reduces the Acceptance Rate.  If there is convective weather (thunderstorms) in the area, that reduces the Acceptance Rate.  Likewise for weather reducing visibility, or low cloud ceilings, or winds that force a traffic flow other than optimum for the airport configuration.  Emergencies, disabled aircraft, runway and taxiway closures . . . all can adversely affect the Acceptance Rate.  And lately something else has been reducing the Acceptance Rate at airports around the country—an ever decreasing number of fully trained, experienced, certified Air Traffic Controllers available to work the increasing number of aircraft in the system.  But we’ll explore this last problem later.

At any rate, the implementation of RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minima) in January 2005 proved that no amount of increased en route airspace utilization would ever significantly impact flight delays.  As controllers are fond of saying, “It’s the concrete, stupid.”  The only way to significantly reduce flight delays is to make additional investments in runways and taxiways at the major hub airports, and add them in such a way as to avoid impacting existing runways, flight paths, and ground operations.  So, why did former Administrator Blakey push so hard to sell NextGen?  Why did her replacement Bobby Sturgell continue the hard sell?  Why are Agency managers continuing this hard sell even today?  As is so often the answer, one need only follow the money.

Wednesday:  Part II

copyright © 2011 R. Doug Wicker

No portions of this article are to be used, quoted, copied, or retransmitted without the permission of the author.

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Filed under Aviation Safety, Technology/New Stuff

5 responses to “How Contracting Government Gets People Killed—Part I

  1. David K. Williams

    Go get’em, Doug!

  2. john kaplun

    Love it Doug R. I would like to see you added to get the flicks blog roll for wider dissemination.

  3. That would be up to Don Brown, but I don’t know that this blog is a good fit for that because I also do blogs unrelated to much of what Don’s doing. But thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Pingback: More from The Tombstone Agency | Martinlady's View Through the Looking Glass

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