FAA chief: Top agency challenges include security, management

Last September, Marion Blakey became the new administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration after having served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Since September 11, most of the attention on aviation matters has focused on security, especially on the Transportation Security Administration, but the FAA still has to deal with many challenges-everything from the airlines' poor financial condition and longtime complaints about the agency's management, to the huge number of air traffic controllers who will be retiring in the coming years.

National Journal spoke with Blakey in mid-January about these challenges and on Feb. 3 conducted a follow-up interview about the Columbia space shuttle disaster. Edited excerpts from those interviews follow.

NJ: While America's space program obviously doesn't fall within the FAA's jurisdiction and responsibilities, is the FAA helping with the investigation into the loss of Columbia?

Blakey: NASA and the FAA have worked together for a long time-especially in researching aviation safety and aircraft technology-and we stand ready to give whatever help they might need. In the wake of this tragedy, we have provided available radar data to NASA and others, as well as our expertise on how the debris field might have dispersed. Steve Wallace, our director of accident investigations, is a member of the independent investigation board, and I expect we'll be lending more of our people and expertise in the weeks and months to come.

NJ: Does the accident have any implications for the FAA and its future responsibilities? What kinds of things can the FAA do to prevent tragedies like this?

Blakey: Before we talk about implications or preventing future tragedies, we need to know what happened first. My experience with the NTSB tells me it will take some time to determine the probable root cause and how to fix it. And I know that Administrator [Sean] O'Keefe and NASA are absolutely committed to doing just that.

In addition to helping with the investigation, we'll be watching its progress and outcome with great interest. Some may not know that the FAA has an important role in regulating and ensuring the safety of the commercial space industry. The investigation may very well result in a number of lessons learned that we can apply to commercial space activity to make it safer. And, once again, to go back to my NTSB experience, that is the only remotely good thing that can come about from an accident. We learn and share information to make sure that the same tragedy doesn't happen again.

NJ: How are you settling into your new job?

Blakey: It is a better job than I had anticipated. For one thing, it is a very exciting time to be here at the FAA, given the state of the industry. The industry is truly in peril, and that puts added responsibility on the work that we are doing. Also, in the long run it offers opportunities to shape what the aviation system of the future will be like in regard to our responsibilities to ensure safety and improve capacity. I feel very lucky to be in this job.

NJ: Since 9/11, the public seems to be focused on airport security, a responsibility that was taken away from the FAA and given to the new Transportation Security Administration. Is the public forgetting about some of the important challenges the FAA faces?

Blakey: When I said I feel very lucky in being in this job, I feel lucky as well because the FAA has been given a bit of a breather. As you know, we have been the focus so very often on Capitol Hill. And if there's a hiccup in the system, it can become a big news story. When everyone is focused on any irregularity, it does certainly siphon energy and take a great deal of time to continue to respond to issues-whether they are big or small.

Even though the responsibility for security has shifted to the TSA, we still have the responsibility for the safety of the system, and often those two things are inextricably linked. And when something goes wrong, you don't know initially what the problem is-is it something mechanical, operational, or criminal? Plus, we have the regulatory authority, so if the cockpit doors are going to be hardened, we're the ones who are going to have to certify them, see that the design changes are made, and see that the implementation goes smoothly.

NJ: At the NTSB, your job was to investigate aviation accidents and prod the FAA to implement specific safety improvements. As a result, there was often some natural tension between these two agencies. How is it now, playing for the other team?

Blakey: The funny thing is, I've not looked at it that way. For one thing, I come to this with a strong safety background and safety portfolio from my previous work at the NTSB and at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I look at the FAA and the NTSB as being on the same team, because the goal is advancing safety. Certainly, the NTSB has a watchdog role there, and I do think that the NTSB gets it right most of the time. By prodding and pushing for safety advances, I think they challenge us to do our best over here.

NJ: Isn't the difference between the NTSB and the FAA that it's easier to recommend something than to test and implement it?

Blakey: I think that's exactly right. You have a very smart group of engineers, scientists, and pilots at NTSB. But there are only about 450 of them. And they are certainly in no position to deal with the operational reality and the research requirements that a number of the recom- mendations entail. It is one thing to say, "We should"; it's another thing to actually be able to come to grips with what is going to have to happen to make it work. That's our job at the FAA. And sometimes it's an issue of doing a cost-benefit analysis and trying to justify what is supposed to be a costly new enterprise.

NJ: This year, Congress will be reauthorizing the major aviation funding programs. What are the administration's priorities?

Blakey: I think that what we are looking for out of the bill is sharpening this agency's focus on the two imperatives that we have at this point. As you know, the FAA's mandate over time has changed. At one point, security was part of our focus. At one point, industry promotion was seen as very important. But right now we have a very clear imperative to increase safety and improve the capacity in our overall aviation system, both in the air and on the ground. So the bill is going to be focused in those two areas, and we are looking for the ways that we can allocate what are very scarce resources right now.

What we have to do is make sure that we are using those resources cost-effectively. And that's what I think some of the proposed changes that you'll see in the bill will do. In addition, we'll be looking at the streamlining requirements with regard to airport infrastructure and the amount of time it takes to build it. We're not looking to diminish the analysis that you have to do from an environmental standpoint, but we want to do it more efficiently. There are frequent situations where you have no particular opposition to a building project, but it still takes an inordinate length of time.

NJ: Critics have often referred to the FAA as a dysfunctional agency. What specific steps are you taking to make the FAA more functional?

Blakey: I think the FAA has been steadily improving, and I think we are seeing that in terms of the work that we're doing to really have a performance-based organization that is driven by metrics, that's driven by data. I think that a lot of the FAA's previous problems continue to create a hangover for us, and do not reflect what the current approach here is.

I think we have to be a lot more consistent. As I talk to people about the FAA, whether it's about certification or inspections, we are not consistent enough. It needs to be an organization where you get the same answer whether you ask one regional office or another; where the approach is the same in Los Angeles as it is in New York. I also believe it's important that we be very driven by performance measures right down to the individual member of the FAA-so people know what they are being held accountable for, and why.

NJ: The General Accounting Office has mentioned that a significant number of air traffic controllers will retire over the next few years. What are you doing at the FAA to alleviate any problem this might cause?

Blakey: We are looking very much at the question of projecting when the retirements will actually occur. This is all happening, of course, because the PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] strike caused a major hiring bubble in the early `80s, so there will be a period of several years when we are likely to see significant retirements. Our plan at this point is to increase the overall number of controllers we will have at that stage, because there does have to be overlap between our veterans who will be passing the baton and younger controllers. We're looking at the question of training. How are we doing our training now? Is it sufficient? Are there ways we can improve it? And should we be requiring other kinds of education backgrounds and looking at the private sector?

NJ: Is there anything else you'd like to address?

Blakey: I believe that one of the things I really need to work on at this agency is our role in the international sector. The FAA needs to put much greater energy behind our leadership vis-a-vis the international aviation community on issues of safety, technology, approaches, and standards. The United States has to abide by much higher standards in terms of safety, and I think a stronger international focus will help American carriers compete in the global market.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec