After Five Years, It's Time to Fly: Jane Garvey Looks Ahead to Life Outside the FAA

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In August of 1997, after the FAA cruised for eight months with no administrator at the yoke, President Bill Clinton named Jane Garvey to lead the agency responsible for regulating and overseeing aviation safety and security, and operating the world's largest air traffic control system. As the 14th federal aviation administrator and the first woman to lead the agency, Garvey had a lot to learn and little time to learn it. After five years, she will be leaving the post at a time when the aviation system is in a state of transition, with challenges prompted by the public and Congress. AVweb's Liz Swaine sat down with Garvey for a one-on-one talk at EAA AirVenture, in which the administrator took a look at her five years on the job and life after 9/11.

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She came to the FAA as a veteran of federal and state government: First as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Works, then the director of Boston's Logan International Airport, and finally as the acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. When President Clinton approached her to become the head of the 49,000-employee FAA, she accepted, and almost immediately, a target was drawn on her forehead. Though she had overseen Massachusetts' largest airport, she was tagged as the administrator with no aviation experience and was occasionally ridiculed as a penguin, a flightless bird. At almost every aviation gathering, she was asked if she ever planned to get a pilot's license. "I don't know if I will. I've got a daughter to get married," the FAA administrator, wife, and mother told AVweb.

 
Garvey at Oshkosh
(Click photos for large versions)
 
Her lack of flying experience did not stop her from initiating some bold new aviation policies and programs. Free Flight — program to let airlines fly direct, saving them time and money — and the Safer Skies initiative — a series of steps aimed at reducing the U.S. fatal accident rate by 80% over ten years — came out of her office. She also spearheaded the push to replace ATC's outdated radar with the 

Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, the much-maligned, over-budget and behind-schedule STARs system. And she flew coast-to-coast at midnight on December 31, 1999, to prove to a fearful flying public that the country's aviation infrastructure wasn't going to send planes plunging into the ground at the stroke of Y2K. Very few of her programs sailed through with no opposition, and the inertia of a nine-region, 49,000-employee behemoth of an agency often slowed things to a crawl.

Proud of How the FAA Handled 9/11

Of everything she faced — disgruntled unions, striking pilots, aggravated lawmakers, and delayed air travelers — her most difficult challenge came on September 11, 2001. After terrorists did the unimaginable and used airplanes filled with innocent passengers as weapons, the FAA took the unprecedented step of grounding every commercial flight, every cropduster, every ultralight. For too many long, bleak days, the aviation community watched, waited, and wondered at the outcome. "We've come a long way back from those difficult, dark days," Garvey told several hundred flying enthusiasts at the EAA's Meet the Administrator session. "And I'm confident we'll continue to move forward."

  Garvey at Oshkosh
 

Her agency's reaction on 9/11 and in its aftermath gives her great pride. "Clearly that was the darkest day for aviation," she told AVweb, "but we managed it safely and then restored it in the days that followed." She is equally proud of the improvement in aviation's safety record, in "taking ATC into the 21st century," and reducing airline delays by 20% in the summer of 2001. Since the events of September 11, Washington has been hardwired into security, changing rules and spending billions to prevent such an action from happening again. Projects were pushed aside as the man-hours and money that would have gone into them went into more airport security screeners and more checkpoints, or was funneled into the new Transportation Security Agency (TSA) instead. Had 9/11 never happened, if the money and manpower it has demanded had not been needed, how much more could Garvey have accomplished? It is a question she has obviously posed to herself.

"I think we might have made more progress in capacity, with modernization ... and some regulations we could have dealt with in a more timely fashion, we could have finished up sooner. I think part of the challenge after September 11 is that all the people working on rules both at OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and the secretary's [Mineta] office started working on emergency security rules. So some of the regulations probably didn't move as quickly as we'd have liked. The fact that Sport Pilot didn't get sidetracked fully is really testimony to those people like Nick Sabatini [associate administrator for regulation and certification] and others who kept the pressure on because, at that time, it would have been very easy to let everything go."

Changing Role for the Administrator

In addition to being a strange new world after September 11, there was also a paradigm shift in who did what and where. Instead of Garvey taking front and center on aviation security issues and charging up the hill to rebut the effectiveness of the Congress' ludicrous security-measure-du-jour, that role was left to Transportation Security Norman Mineta.

"I think very early on because of national security issues, the decision was made to have the cabinet secretaries be more visible. This was an unusual time, an 'act of war,' as the President described it. So it was. I think appropriately so, the cabinet officials out there handling it ... We certainly have had many discussions internally with the White House and OMB, but I think that we have to accept the fact that September 11 challenged every preconception, and that Congress was going to act in a way that was, in their view, the most responsive. There were such strong feelings, such horror, Congress was very eager to take a strong stand."

A Few Regrets

  Capstone Project Staff
 

She may have regrets in her lack of freedom to respond to Congressional calls for private pilot background checks and the myriad of other legislative- and executive-branch suggestions, but she refuses to say it. But there are some regrets she feels comfortable talking about. "I think any time you take on any complex issues like the ones I mentioned [STARs, capacity, safety], there's always a sense of a work in progress, of unfinished business, I wish I had more time." Though President Bush offered her more time while he searched for her successor, Garvey said the five years was enough. "I said early on that five years was the appropriate amount of time. I've been in Washington for nine years in federal positions and that seems like the right time. Some of the things I value, collaboration with industry, opening the agency up a little bit, I feel like I've made good progress and I think we've left solid foundation for next administrator."

She believes she is also leaving an organization filled with people who care about the issues, though she admits the bureaucrats in the system have the power to slow the process. "I suppose it's unrealistic to expect that every experience will be perfect, but by and large, these [FAA employees] are wonderful people. You know, democracy by nature is not efficient, it doesn't move quickly, it is a public process bringing people together, and it sometimes doesn't lend itself to being as quick to respond as people would like, but I've met far more people who want to make a difference than those who don't." She admits, though, that with such a large agency, consistency is sometimes hard to come by and must be worked at constantly.

"Your Agency, Ma'am"

Marion Blakey  
 

Garvey says she and administrator-nominee Marion Blakey spent several hours on the phone a few days ago, and she praises Blakey as a good listener. That is a skill she believes will serve Blakey, the current NTSB chairwoman, well. "The best advice I got 100 years ago," Garvey laughs, "is to listen to people with a broader background than I have. I think every success we've had, and we've had a number of successes, has been developed and strengthened and made better by kind of a constructive collaboration, Liz Swaine and Jane Garvey whether with the General Aviation Coalition [a group of GA alphabets who give advice on issues], even with air traffic controllers in thinking about modernization. The best advice I got was to listen, but not to be afraid to make a decision. That's the advice I would give [to Blakey]. It's a wonderful community, with a lot of experts. I think listening is a key part, but don't be afraid to make a decision."

On August 4, Garvey will walk out the door of an organization she has helped define for the past five years. She tells AVweb she will probably stay in transportation, even be in Washington part-time, but will not work as a lobbyist. There is much she will miss, but one thing she will not ... her beeper. She will leave behind detractors and supporters and move on to another challenge, as will the agency she has called her home.