FAA's Turn Toward Secrecy
As the White House photo op fiasco continues to unfold, it looks like it's going to evolve into a fascinating study of bureaucratic predilection toward secrecy. The question is, who ordered the clampdown?
As we're reporting today, an FAA memo making the rounds shows that one James J. Johnston in the FAA's security branch wrote a "need-to-know" memo clearly stating that the press and public shouldn't be informed of the planned flyby. It further says that the FAA would take a passive role in the entire sordid affair, with no public statement or involvement of any kind.
Well, excuse the hell out of me for noticing, but the FAA's fundamental job is to assure air safety. And the largish safety of flight issue here is that the Air Force—with the FAA standing passively by—decided it would be dandy to fly a 747 in a two-ship with an F-16 around the Statute of Liberty at altitudes as low as 1000 feet in the middle of a workday rush hour. If you've ever been through that airspace, you know that it's buzzing with traffic up and down the Hudson, mostly helicopters from the New Jersey side into the heliports on the East Side.
So here comes a 747 the size of Hackensack steaming along at what, 200 knots? Maybe a little less. If you happened to be flying in the corridor and saw an airplane that was clearly Air Force One towing an F-16, you'd soil yourself. You'd figure you missed the NOTAM and were about to be splashed by a missile. In any case, an airplane of that size and speed just doesn't belong there. It's a bad idea and the FAA should recognize it for what it is: the juxtaposition of military aircraft with civil aircraft in constricted airspace such as to endanger the civil aircraft. The tradeoff? A photo the government didn't even need. That's the galling part.
The irony is that the FAA did recognize the hazard. Mr. Johnston says in his memo "due to the possibility of public concern regarding DOD aircraft flying at low levels…" the appropriate agencies were contacted. But they were also told not to tell anyone else, least of all the general public. So, the bottom line is that the FAA saw a problem, knew the public would be concerned and chose to stonewall it, hoping for who knows what to happen? (Ah, Mr. Johnston, it's happening now.)
In my previous blog on this subject and in e-mail I've received, a few readers have suggested that this is a mole hill in search of a mountain. But I don't agree. In my view, this is an example of federal civil servants blatantly and arrogantly ignoring the best interests of the people they are paid—rather better than most of us, I might add—to protect.
The FAA is supposed to push back when it sees safety issues. That's why it exists. Here, it not only didn't do that, it got happily onboard to keep the very public it's supposed to protect uninformed and in the dark. It's less the event itself and more the fundamental unaccountability. (As I write this, no one in the FAA wants to respond to any of this.)
The FAA and other agencies of its ilk will continue to behave this way unless we shame them into doing otherwise and thinking twice about arrogantly ignoring the public interest. So I'm okay if this story goes on for a while until we at least learn of the miscreants involved.