While I was taking notes at the FAA's avgas replacement committee briefing at AOPA Summit on Thursday, I thought of something famed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee once said. Journalists shouldn't waste much effort on writing stories about governmental processeshow this bill went from one committee to the next or how some obscure federal agency shuffles its paper. Such stories waste ink and paper (pixels, now) and do nothing but provide helpful shilling for agencies and politicians to act quietly behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the public. No understanding of the larger meaning is conveyed.
Yet scribbling about process was exactly what I was doing last week, for the briefing we got from the Unleaded Avgas Transition rulemaking group (UAT-ARC) provided very little substance to chew on, but a couple of dense government-speak flow charts and a briefing on how the Clean Air Act works. (I'll concede that this part of the briefing was useful because it showed how EPA is constrained from spinning out of control and banning leaded avgas.) The briefing we heard Thursday was the one that was supposed to be delivered at AirVenture in July but got tanked because the Congressional debt fiasco temporarily shut down the FAA.
Following the briefing, the committee panel entertained questions from the audience, but carefully steered these toward process issues and away from substance. To a degree, this is understandable because the UAT-ARC is midstream and whatever recommendations it might be considering are subject to revision. I get that. But the missing piece here could be found in the perceived mood of the audience. I asked my friend Paul Millner, who was sitting next to me, for his one-word assessment of the audience's demeanor: Anxious. Mine would have been impatient, with a splash of skepticism.
And what's missing is the same thing missing in the larger economy: confidencein the FAA, the industry players and, indeed, the process itself. That one audience member asked the perennial question concerning the future value of an expensive overhaul with avgas in doubt shows that the lack of a transparent effort to find an unleaded replacement continues to erode buyer confidence. If you were trying to design a process to aggravate this worry and doubt, a committee meeting behind closed doors which is legally constrained from reporting progress would be it. I don't think the FAA has a clue about this, although many on the UAT ARC committee certainly do.
I am told by people I respect and trust that this secrecy is necessary because if the public at large got wind of certain ideas or trends the committee was pursuing, niche interests might derail progress. But what niche interests? It certainly couldn't be the oil companies, since they are well represented on the committee. OEMs? They have seats at the table, too. And besides, when in the messy thing we call democracy did it become accepted that the intersection of government regulation and commerce needs to be shaded from public scrutiny?
As a journalist, it is my job to push back against this misguided idea. My job is to try to pull the curtain back, not hand others another roll of Velcro to secure it. When I am asked by ownersand I frequently amwhat to do about investments in overhauls and upgrades, I respond that avgas replacement will get sorted out. Go ahead with the planned upgrade. I can't give any specifics, because I don't know any specifics. I think the UAT-ARC is making progress and is unlikely to run off the rails. But I conclude this is based on a degree of blind faith buttressed by information from sources outside the committee.
I think the committee is asking the GA community for a similar degree of blind faith, but in my view, against the larger backdrop of widespread government and Congressional ineptitude and a dysfunctional political climate, it thus far remains faith unearned.