The head of the FAA continues to insist that what most of us define as air traffic control will remain a government function, regardless of suggestions to the contrary by union officials and at least one senior senator. "There are absolutely no plans to privatize air traffic control as we know it," Administrator Marion Blakey told AVweb in an exclusive, if brief, private interview at EAA AirVenture. Blakey's jammed Oshkosh schedule precluded in-depth treatment of the issues but she did take a few minutes to discuss the privatization issue and give us a hint of what's to come to improve GA safety. Last Friday, a congressional consensus committee gave final structure to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, which sets the agency's spending for coming years. Both houses now have to vote on it. The president had threatened to veto provisions calling for almost a blanket ban on privatization of ATC services and, in the end, the compromise bill preserved the FAA's ability to add 71 towers at relatively low-volume VFR facilities to its list of "contract towers." Blakey told AVweb the measure, which prompted noisy reaction from the National Air Traffic Control Association and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, meant that the FAA already had the option to add those towers to the contract list and the proposed legislation would have cancelled it. She said the option hasn't been exercised, so far, but FAA management couldn't be put in a "straight jacket" where those towers are concerned. The union has repeatedly suggested the contract provisions are the first step on a slippery slope toward full privatization of air traffic control and Lautenberg chimed in last week at a news conference. "The president wants to turn their jobs over to the private sector. That plan won't fly with the public," Lautenberg is quoted by NATCA as saying. But Blakey flatly rejected that notion, as she has previously done in public statements and in a memo to FAA staff. "I don't know what it is about 'No' that they don't understand," she said.
Blakey told AVweb the FAA will soon publish 300 Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) approaches to airports around the country that currently don't have instrument approaches. She called it a significant step toward the major goal of her term to improve GA's safety record. "Now, the average private pilot is going to have very accurate vertical as well as horizontal [position data]," she said. WAAS uses a system of ground-station relays to correct errors inherent in the satellite signals, thus boosting the accuracy of GPS position data to the point that it can be used for instrument-like approaches. Most of the available "WAAS capable" GPS systems are not yet certified for the vertical component of the WAAS data so can't be used for WAAS approaches. Blakey said other initiatives are on the way to help us fly more safely. She said a concerted effort by the agency to improve airline safety has paid off and now it's GA's turn. "It's very clear that we are not making as much progress [in GA safety] as we are in the airlines," she said. Look for a shift in training priorities as the agency shifts to a more tailored approach to teaching us to fly. "One-size-fits-all really doesn't," she told an EAA forum earlier in her visit to Oshkosh. Blakey said it makes more sense to train pilots for the kind of flying they intend to do than for every type of flying. That will also extend to training pilots for specific aircraft as the hardware becomes more technologically advanced. The FAA Industry Training System (FITS) will involve manufacturers in setting type-specific training and standards. Cirrus and Eclipse have already been approved as participants in FITS program. Blakey also said there will be some attention paid to aircraft certification but did not have time to elaborate. She showed tangible support to the Light Sport/Sport Pilot sector by going for a ride in a Flightdesign CT. To the delight of onlookers at the ultralight area of AirVenture, she and pilot Tom Pigehny lifted off the grass strip for a 20-minute tour of the Oshkosh area.