The Blackout Effect: Fiction or Fact?

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GUEST EDITORIAL. On January 4, 1997, NBC will air a made-for TV movie in which an ATC computer glitch results in a passenger jet inbound to O'Hare colliding with a cargo plane, destroying both aircraft and killing 185 people, whereupon FAA management attempts to cover up the cause of the mishap. Is this the product of a Hollywood screenwriter with a hyperactive imagination? No it isn't, say ATC consultants R. Michael Baiada and Michael J. Boyd. They've previewed this movie and believe it to be uncannily accurate, and that a real catastrophe along these lines is just a matter of time unless decisive changes are made promptly to the U.S. ATC system.

Senator Slade Gorton
Chairman — Senate Aviation Subcommittee
U. S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Gorton:

Mid-air collision kills 185. Global flight 1025, inbound to Chicago, collides with a cargo aircraft, PDO flight 342. Both aircraft are destroyed. NTSB investigating the FAA and the Air Traffic Control system as primary cause.

This is the storyline in a made-for-TV movie, Blackout Effect, to be aired by NBC on January 4, 1998 (9-11 P.M., ET). It involves an incident where an ATC computer glitch causes a mid-air disaster. In its aftermath, FAA management tries to cover it up. Sadly, to most Americans, it will be taken as fiction.

The fact is that this film is not fiction. All the factors in the storyline are true and in place today. We do have an ATC system that frequently has life-threatening failures. It is true that the FAA management has failed miserably to address the problem. Even the GAO has found that the FAA is incapable of fixing its own internal problems, let alone the ATC system.

But what is much more frightening, Senator, FAA management is not above trying to doctor data and cover the truth when they feel it necessary, just as depicted in the movie. We would point to testimony days after the ValuJet crash, when the FAA Administrator assured Congress that ValuJet was found to be "safe" by his organization. They failed to mention that an FAA inspector had months earlier recommended that the airline be shut down, but was told to bury his report, as testified to at the NTSB hearings. And the truth was that safety violations at ValuJet were so obvious that weeks after the crash, the FAA was finally forced to shut it down.

Yet between the inspector's original recommendation which was covered up, and the actual ValuJet shut down, 110 innocent people died. Lives lost while an FAA Administrator, and indeed, his boss, the Secretary of Transportation, tried to cover it up. In fact, the Secretary attempted to mislead the public by stating that ValuJet actually "exceeded" FAA requirements in some areas. Without doubt, the NBC movie mimics reality, not fiction.

Unless you and your committee — and indeed, all in Congress — decide to take meaningful action, this movie storyline will become reality. No, Senator, calling more "hearings" where a phalanx of FAA officials dance around the issue to protect themselves and their leaders, is not action. Such events are political theater. No, Senator, appointing more "task forces" such as that recently chaired by Norman Mineta, is not action. And just expressing "outrage" over the issue without the courage to focus on those responsible for doing nothing about this is one reason the American people hold Congress in such low esteem.

Every day wasted in treating the ATC issue as just another mundane item on the agenda puts us closer to events that will kill people. It is that simple. As much as we hope and pray that history will prove us wrong, sadly, it will not. We must not tolerate an FAA that is poorly led and motivated at the top by political agendas. If we depend on this type of non-leadership, more people will die, and no one in Congress has the right to claim they are not responsible.

It is unfortunate that it will likely take a disaster such at that depicted in the NBC movie to get action in rapidly re-building the entire ATC system. The FAA is incapable of doing this, but others are not. We would point out that most of the "solutions" suggested by the FAA and others in the current power structure, such as Mr. Mineta, revolve around failed attempts to preserve the existing approach to air traffic control, rather than move it into the 21st century. Calls to spend more money or change the ownership of the system are nothing more than attempts to evade the dual decisions that will ensure a safe air transport system: totally rebuild the ATC system, which can be done for far less money than the nonsense now being spouted by the FAA, and totally re-structure the FAA to be as politically-sterile as possible. The post of FAA Administrator which in the past has been left unfilled for months at a time, is today essentially a patronage position, rather than one occupied by individuals who are expert in aviation safety matters. Congress must not accept this any longer.

As a nation we can wait and see more people die, as did those on ValuJet, or we can use this movie as a catalyst for safety and act now. Absence a change in direction by FAA, what is portrayed in this movie will become reality. Regrettably, you may take this prediction and make book on it.

Our nation's ATC system is a disgrace, yet FAA continues to squander billions, while accomplishing nothing. Unfettered by any meaningful oversight, FAA continues to choose complex over simple, expensive over economic, grandiose over minimal. When presented with simpler, safer, less expensive solutions, their reaction is to stonewall to protect their own management incompetence. Yes, Senator Gorton, this is somewhat blunt and may appear inflexible. But so is safety.

Responding to suggestions that the ATC system can be fixed in a relatively short time and with less than billions of dollars, the FAA literally goes on the attack, "if something seems too good to be true, it probably is," stated George Donohue, FAA Associate Administrator for Research and Acquisition, October 1996. The translation — "We refuse to listen to any outside ideas."

When Captain Baiada asked the FAA Flight Standards division to apply the same safety criteria to todays ATC system that FAA applies to the airline industry, they responded with typical disdain. "Under current FAA organizational concept, I will not be undertaking your requested actions," stated Guy Gardner, Associate Administrator for Regulation and Certification, in September 1997. Translation — "I don't want to rock the boat with ideas that have not been blessed at the top first. Besides, it's not my job".

We have wasted precious time with nonsense. Suddenly, again, "privatization" is the buzzword, as suggested by the Mineta committee. Again "more money" will solve the problem. Tossing money at a system that runs on wasting it will not help. This issue is not about privatization or budgets. Putting a new Captain on a rudderless ship accomplishes little.

Senator Gorton, it's time to stop dithering. Over the last 15 years FAA has squandered more money on half-baked, failed projects than it would take to replace the entire ATC system. Simply, giving them more money will only allow FAA to buy the wrong things faster. This issue is not about technology, because the technology readily available to easily solve the ATC problems, and there are alternatives to the money-wasting non-solutions that the FAA pursues.

FAA will undoubtedly say that they are doing everything possible to fix this problem. Their track record shows otherwise. For example, just look at the Display System Replacement (DSR) program that is intended to replace the controllers' displays. FAA has said that this program is on time and under budget. But that is more data-doctoring, as the program is a carryover of the failed AAS system, which wasted 10 years and upwards of $3 Billion of the taxpayer's money. Additionally, it provides the controller and pilots nothing in the way of new functionality, because it is still connected to a system that is woefully obsolete. FAA will also say that safety is never compromised — the US ATC system is the safest in the world. If you accept that at face value, we would remind you of Secretary Pena and FAA Administrator's incredible comments following the ValuJet disaster.

Bottom line, Congress can act now based on the death of 185 fictional characters, or wait until real people die. The choice is yours. I urge you to watch the movie, and suggest that you do not consider it to be fiction. What you will see is the inevitable outcome of inaction by Congress.

This issue is about courage, leadership and vision. The courage to name the problem, which is a corrupted FAA structure. And the leadership and vision to boldly take actions that may gore some sacred cows and to take the heat from the entrenched establishment for doing so. We look to you for this, and we stand ready to help in any possible way .

Sincerely,

Captain R. Michael Baiada
President, RMB Associates
(303) 674-0229

Michael J. Boyd
President, The Boyd Group
(303) 674-2000

cc: Congressman John Duncan