FAA Resists Change, Panel Determines

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Maybe it's the 1970s-vintage computers many FAA staffers use, perhaps it's the 1950s-style labor-relations environment (OK, it has been getting better) or maybe the industry it governs is just a bit on the conservative side, but the Government Accountability Office has confirmed something many have long suspected: When it comes to new ideas, the FAA can be a stick in the mud. The GAO assembled a panel of former high-level FAA bureaucrats, economists, academics and industry experts whose report concluded that the FAA is running a jet-age air traffic control system with piston-age thinking, from field staff to those at 800 Independence. "Such resistance is a characteristic of FAA personnel at all levels," the panel concluded. The report formed a backdrop to aviation subcommittee hearings on Thursday, which offered similar laments.

Rep. John Mica, who heads the committee, said the air traffic control system "is reaching its maximum capacity." That, he said, bodes badly for the busy season ahead. "I predict that clogged airspace, bad weather and systems outages will create massive delays and backups throughout the system this summer, and may be routine in the future." Inspector General Ken Mead said safety is also a concern, noting that "severe errors" where aircraft barely missed one another occurred an average of every nine days last year. The ancient computers are failing at an increasing rate. In Denver, Mead said, controllers' screens lock up an average of a little less than once a week. And as if to illustrate the testimony at the hearings, the lone radar site serving O'Hare International was out for about 40 minutes on Thursday after the main system failed and the backup didn't kick in. Fortunately, the weather was clear and calm and controllers were able to handle traffic visually with only minor delays reported.