After Sept. 11, FAA chief Marion Blakey set out to fix aviation, even if it meant ruffling some feathers.
The hallway outside Marion Blakey's office is lined with official portraits of the heads of the Federal Aviation Administration who came before her. The men in the paintings are sitting in chairs, wearing conservative suits, or standing on airfields in aviator jackets, but none attempts anything like the knee-length green suit that Administrator Blakey was planning to wear to the Hill one morning in April, and though many of her predecessors were from the South, none had her Alabama drawl.
Blakey's gender - she's only the second woman to head FAA - and her accent are easy to spot, but what really differentiates Blakey from her successors is the challenges she's faced during her tenure, and the tools she's brought to bear on them. Unlike the Air Force and Navy officers who headed the agency in earlier years, Blakey is a civilian who came to the Transportation Department after 20 years of government service in other agencies. She also is a businesswoman who built a broad-based transportation consultancy, but chose to focus on aviation shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks ushered in one of the most challenging periods in the industry's history.
As Blakey puts it, "When I look back at what has been important to me, and that is I knew that the aviation system was at a tipping point. . . . I came in at the point where you really could help be an architect of what's going to be the [Next Generation Air Transportation System]." As her five-year run draws to a close, FAA's financing and authorization bills are expiring and air traffic is stretching the old radar-based control system to its breaking point. With only a few months to go, Blakey is starting the fight of her career as she tries to convince Congress to prioritize an ambitious new air traffic control system and to use the business principles that have guided her over the past four and half years to structure a new financing system for FAA.
"I'm running for the finish line, no question about it, and I feel very good about where we are right now," Blakey says. "But I don't have a crystal ball to be able to tell you that I can tell are we going to take this to the finish line successfully or not. I hope so. It's hugely important."
FAA is only the latest stop in a career that Marion Blakey began as a GS-3 at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and that carried her to the Commerce and Education departments, the White House, and finally to the Transportation Department.
It was at Transportation that she finally found her niche. After her first stint at the department, Blakey took a nine-year break from government to open her transportation consulting firm, Blakey & Associates, now Blakey & Agnew, in Washington. The experience was illuminating. "I had the advantage of working with a lot of crack corporations and watching how they do business," Blakey says. "When you are a consultant, you are very frequently in the boardroom and working with the executive team, and you learn a lot."
Among the executives who influenced her during this period were Thomas J. Donohue, then president of the American Trucking Associations, now the aggressive president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and John M. Brophy, executive vice president of Affiliated Computer Services Inc. in Dallas, which provides data management services to the federal government. Among the client companies were DaimlerChrysler and Lockheed Martin Corp., which would later win a major contract to operate weather information centers for FAA when Blakey became administrator.
In addition to leadership lessons, Blakey learned to love aviation, and it was aviation that drew her back to government service. She left her firm just weeks after Sept. 11 to run the National Transportation Safety Board.
"[Aviation is] real world. It's huge, it touches the lives of everyone. You don't have to stop and try to explain to people what you do as a bureaucrat. It's big money, big impact, and you can see whether you're making a difference," says Blakey. Her appointment to FAA in 2002 gave her the platform to bring her business principles and government experience to the subject that engaged her most. "I have worked in other parts of government where the outcome is less tangible. And there's satisfaction in that too, don't misunderstand me, but you sometimes feel that you are pushing a wet rope up a hill."
Blakey's biggest risk at FAA has not been any one initiative-though there have been many-but rather her guiding philosophy. "I have had people object to saying that I expect and intend to run the FAA like a business. And I don't apologize to anyone for that. It's a safety business, but it should have the best practices in both government and the private sector," she says.
"These days in government, none of us have a blank check. And that means you're going to have to work a lot more effectively and efficiently."
That belief led to two of her early innovations as FAA administrator. First, Blakey reached out to regulators and manufacturers to establish new standards and technology for hardened cockpit doors. The political will was there in the wake of the Sept. 11 hijackings, but "by any government standard, it was warp speed, in terms of the rule-making, the design, the certification of those doors, and getting them installed," Blakey says.
She also drew on her time at the National Transportation Safety Board to fix a long-standing problem: the flammability of the fuel tanks on airplanes, which contributed to the 1996 crash of TWA 800 in New York that killed 230 people. Shortly after Blakey took over at FAA, she promoted the work of a scientist with a strong corporate background who had made a breakthrough that would make leftover fuel less likely to ignite. She'd learned about his work while she was at NTSB.
"It looked at that point like a science project that you could see in your garage. But the principles behind it were very compelling," Blakey says. "So, one of the things I have to admit I'm very proud of is we moved aggressively on that, and we have put out a rule-making that will take that problem off the table in the commercial jet fleet in the next few years."
John W. Douglass, president of the Aerospace Industries Association in Arlington, Va., gives Blakey credit for pushing technological developments during her tenure. "It's not the front line of the bureaucracy. If you're a scientist or an engineer, one of the exciting things is to go to the DoD and work on a stealth bomber, go to the moon," he says. "When you're asked, how'd you like to build new ground-based radar, those aren't the things that get young engineers and scientists all fired up over the future."
In addition to improving the physical condition of planes, Blakey also has worked to institute new ways of measuring the overall performance of the aviation system. She instituted a business plan for FAA, and established strict metrics-based goals.
J. Randolph Babbitt, CEO of Eclat Consulting in Reston, Va., and a member of the FAA Management Advisory Council, praised those metrics because he believes they have helped the agency provide a more accurate assessment of the aviation system's performance.
"We're reevaluating some of those metrics, which hasn't been done in more than a decade," Babbitt says. "Some of those numbers aren't germane anymore . . . the way we measure delays . . . the carriers add block time, so the delays creep and creep and creep. In some cases, we're measuring the wrong things."
When her measurements showed that the government was not performing to her standards, Blakey did not hesitate to turn to the private sector. In 2003, she bid out the automated flight service stations, facilities that provide information about the weather and other flying conditions to pilots. Lockheed Martin ultimately won the $1.9 billion contract, the biggest award ever granted under the government's A-76 process. Blakey contends that the company has improved the centers' performance by updating technologies and implementing best practices for call waiting, so information can be delivered quicker and more reliably. Lockheed Martin also consolidated the 58 stations into 20 facilities. Blakey estimates the contract saved taxpayers $2.2 billion.
But Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union of air traffic equipment technicians, argued that the contract was the result of a political agenda rather than a practical one.
"I think she was brought in because her ideology fit [with a Bush administration agenda of privatization], and she would stick to that, regardless of what it meant to the workforce. . . . It's not as simple as breaking it out into individual pieces and contracting them, because each piece is going to interact with a dozen other pieces," says Brantley. "It's that interaction that's at risk. . . . You can never do that with a contractor because they have their piece."
Smart and Tough
Norman Mineta, the former Democratic congressman who was secretary of Transportation when Blakey was appointed, traces her businesslike approach not to an overarching presidential agenda but to a Clinton-era commission he chaired in 1997. The National Civil Aviation Review Commission concluded that FAA needed to manage its regulatory responsibilities and air traffic operations separately.
"It was imperative that we had someone with the managerial skills and the toughness to manage the bureaucracy and the culture of the FAA," Mineta says. "I felt that Marion had both the smarts and the toughness to be the administrator."
"I had keen appreciation for the fact that, unlike a lot of government, the FAA is actually responsible for operating something. A lot of government is regulatory, oversight, grant-making," says Blakey. "And the FAA does all of that. . . . But running something, operating something day in and day out, when you look at the numbers to see how the system performs, it, shall we say, focuses the mind."
The roots of a businesslike approach to FAA management also lie in the 1996 reauthorization of the agency, when Congress gave the agency independent personnel and procurement authority. The bill removed FAA employees from the General Schedule system and let their unions negotiate with FAA over pay.
"I've been in other federal agencies, and working with federal unions, certainly there are challenges there, but they're around work rules, they're around cultural things, they're around softer stuff," says Blakey. "You can much more easily work through that than when . . . you're absolutely rock-bottom negotiating for money."
In the spring of 2006, Blakey declared negotiations with FAA's largest union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, were at an impasse, and she imposed pay and work rules on the union in September. She insists that the union and FAA were too far apart on questions of compensation. The union wanted an 18 percent pay increase over five years. FAA's final offer, and the one the agency ultimately imposed, was a 9.4 percent pay increase over the same period, a cut in starting controller salaries, and the elimination of incentive pay for controllers who moved to more difficult facilities or took on supervisory duties. The agency also imposed regulations, including a dress code and restrictions on controllers' movements into and out of their facilities.
The controllers have filed 250,000 grievances against FAA management, and some controllers have staged protests in their facilities.
Mineta says it wasn't just pay that was at issue. "I think the culture in the past, historically, has been that technicians really sort of run the place," he says. "My feeling was that we had to exercise our managerial prerogatives. . . . That's where Marion was hard-nosed about trying to balance between being a good, hard manager and still trying to keep the work of the FAA moving forward at a high level." NATCA officials declined to comment for this story, but during congressional hearings this year, they have strongly opposed both the terms of the contract and the way it was implemented. Blakey acknowledged that her actions last fall were not popular.
"I had the task of coming in at the end of the contract and saying, 'Guys, we've got to change the way we do business,' " Blakey says. "And that's not going to get you elected prom queen, I can tell you that."
If the voters are her employees, she's right. A recent FAA workforce survey found that just 17 percent of employees overall and only 9.3 percent of air traffic control workers said they trusted FAA management. But outside the agency, a 2007 Harris poll shows that public trust in FAA has leaped 24 points since Blakey took over in 2002, making it the second-most trusted agency after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fulfilling one of Mineta's goals. "The rest of the world looks to the CDC for disease control guidance, and from both the regulatory and the [research and development] perspective," says Mineta. "I wanted the FAA to be that kind of a beacon as it relates to aviation safety around the world." Until Comair Flight 5191 crashed in Kentucky in August 2006, killing 49 people, there had not been a major plane crash on Blakey's watch, and Mineta and other observers had declared the preceding years "the safest period in aviation." Before that crash, the fatal accident rate for commercial flights was so low that, as Blakey noted in a Cleveland speech in May 2006, "you'd have to fly every day for 43,000 years to get an even chance of being killed in an airline accident."
Blakey has been developing FAA's brand in the United States, as well as taking the agency's reputation worldwide. She established the agency's Office of International Aviation and kicked off the Wright Brothers Partnership, a major U.S.-China aviation initiative to share technical assistance in collaboration with the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. In April, Blakey went to India and Dubai to explore similar partnerships.
These efforts are driven in part by safety concerns.
"During the time I was secretary, we went from 51 Open Skies agreements to 74," says Mineta. "It does put an additional load in terms of, are the planes that are going to be coming into the United States from foreign carriers going to be properly inspected, properly maintained. . . . What Marion is doing in terms of these overseas trips is to assure these countries of the FAA giving technical assistance."
But the assistance goes both ways. Countries with fledgling aviation systems, including India and the United Arab Emirates, are bypassing the radar-based approach as they attempt to build an infrastructure that can handle explosive air traffic growth. Their experiments with satellite-based air traffic control systems are providing important models for the American system.
"General aviation is just at its earliest stages in India, but they are doing some of the pioneering work toward NextGen," Blakey said in a conference call with reporters on her way out of the country. "They are moving toward satellite systems with real speed."
The same thing cannot be said for the United States' efforts to build its Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. Uniting the aviation community has proved a significant challenge.
"Bringing on NextGen, I would rate this as one of the top two or three jobs in the whole government in terms in toughness," says AIA's Douglass. "It's so complex, and look at the people you have to work with. The airlines hate the business and the general aviation community, and the business and general aviation community hate the airlines. You know what a raucous community the air traffic controllers are. She's got all of these various communities to deal with, [each] of which is led by an ego the size of Mount Everest."
Both FAA and the air traffic controllers union agree that a satellite-based system, which would update every second, would provide controllers with much more up-to-date and comprehensive data than radar-based systems, which update every six to seven seconds. Global Positioning System technology would make it easier to locate planes in the air, and the added precision might make it possible for air traffic to move away from the grid system that divides up the skies to ensure a safe buffer between aircraft. Planes potentially could fly closer together, increasing the traffic load the air space could handle. An integrated communications network would let FAA share data from the Transportation Security Administration, the Homeland Security and Defense departments, and international security sources to identify and respond to threats more quickly and comprehensively.
Simulations conducted for FAA by a consulting firm show that the new technologies could dramatically reduce air traffic controller fatigue, improving performance and safety. But despite their general agreement, the agency and its unions squabbled over a program Blakey abolished that allowed the unions to send workers to consult on FAA's technical projects.
"The FAA telecommunications infrastructure is literally rife with problems," says PASS president Brantley. "And beyond kicking us out and telling us they didn't care for our help anymore, they're actually hiding the problems as they occur-they're not being reported." Blakey disagrees, describing the program as one more reclaimed managerial prerogative, another decision for the sake of efficiency.
Blakey and the unions agree that the system is not far enough along to handle the 1 billion passengers who will be moving through it every year by 2015. And paradoxically, the very business practices that have earned Blakey both allies and detractors could hinder her ability to cross that finish line and win greater support for NextGen before she leaves in September.
In submitting her FAA reauthorization proposal to Congress in February, Blakey used the development costs of the NextGen system to promote a proposal to finance FAA through user fees rather than through ticket taxes. Blakey argues that those fees would be a more reliable source of income-because the rise of low-cost airlines has undercut the revenue from ticket taxes-and a more accurate reflection of the costs imposed on the aviation system by different kinds of users.
General aviation groups, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association have protested, and FAA unions derided the financing plan as another attempt to privatize the air traffic system by giving user groups a financial stake in its maintenance.
The unions' claims that Blakey is selling off the air traffic control system have not met with particular success in the past. PASS was unable to block the Lockheed Martin contract. Blakey had to promise to halt privatization of air traffic control facilities, but not to reverse the pilot program that contracted out some of the controllers' jobs. But with Democrats in control of Congress, and union allies in key seats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Blakey's contracting initiatives and management decisions have received renewed scrutiny and skepticism.
In an ironic twist for Blakey, whose critics have cast her as a Bush administration loyalist, the Office of Management and Budget held up the user-fee proposal as the previous session of Congress expired. As a result, Blakey is fighting this last battle mostly alone, and despite her optimism, the prospects are not good. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, vowed to give the financing bill "a decent burial." Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the aviation subcommittee, pronounced it "dead on arrival."
"The key word is balance," says AIA's Douglass. "There are some places where privatization really works well, and there are other places where it doesn't work well. In this town, people try to make it all or nothing. There's clearly got to be places where you can use privatization to improve the efficiency of the FAA, and there are clearly other places where it probably doesn't work. Her critics are the ones who attack her when she tries to find that balance, and they try to characterize that she's not in a balancing mode and she's never been that kind of a person." But with the funding proposal, Blakey might have tipped the scale toward business management as far as it can go-at least for now.
Alyssa Rosenberg is the fact checker for National Journal magazine.