FAA Looks Ahead

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Draft Strategic Plan Released...

The FAA has taken on the daunting tasks of "reinvigorating global air travel and reigniting the power and the potential of aviation for the 21st Century." And it's giving itself five years to lay the groundwork. The agency recently released its draft strategic plan (PDF file) for the years 2004 to 2008, which it coyly calls its Flight Plan. It frankly admits that the status quo just won't do anymore. "Today, the challenges facing aviation demand nothing less than a transformation of the system itself," the plan's introduction says. "This will require a willingness to embrace change on both the part of the industry and the FAA." The plan outlines four major goals including increased safety, greater capacity, international leadership and organizational excellence. As FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told AVweb in an interview two weeks ago, the agency will continue to work on airline safety but there will be a greater emphasis on GA safety in coming years. New technologies, training and aircraft must be accommodated and their potential for safety improvements exploited. The test bed for some of these initiatives will be Alaska, which has, by far, the worst aviation safety record of all states. The plan calls on the agency to continue testing safety-related technology through programs like Capstone and then apply the knowledge gained to flight ops in the rest of the country.

...Safety, Capacity, Standards Stressed...

Seemingly at odds with increased safety is the FAA's determination (and the industry's need) to put more airplanes in the same airspace. Again, technological development gets the nod to decrease separation and streamline the system not only for passenger convenience but to ensure airlines are squeezing the most value possible out of each mile they fly. But the FAA doesn't want to pursue these initiatives in isolation and is hoping the rest of the world will come along for the ride. The plan calls for the FAA to work with agencies and organizations all over the world to come up with standardized safety standards, air traffic procedures and technologies. The European Union is already working to standardize regs and procedures in dozens of countries and the FAA wants to help. The agency also wants to ensure the gains it makes in safety can be shared with the rest of the world.

...Some Navel Gazing, Too...

Perhaps the FAA's biggest challenge through the life of the plan, however, is reinventing itself enough to achieve the lofty goals. Based on the amount of ink the plan devotes to the FAA's own internal challenges, this might be where the rubber hits the road. The agency wants to control costs (many project costs have spiraled out of control in recent years) while at the same time giving employees "the appropriate tools and resources in order to accomplish our mission." The answer, according to the plan, is an agency-wide cost-control program that will ideally find and eliminate wasteful and redundant programs and redirect their funding to those that work. And there's a not-so-subtle hint to the FAA workforce (and unions) that times are changing. "In turn, employee compensation and salary increases should be performance-based, allowing the agency to control costs and reward success." Of course, there are a host of ways any of these strategies can go sideways; many of them are beyond the FAA's control, and the plan specifically mentions a few. If Congress doesn't come up with the cash for the hardware to implement the plans, they're just words on paper. So, the plan stresses performance and accountability perhaps to help convince legislators to open the purse strings. National security concerns could also hijack the plan and a difficult economy means less money from the aviation trust fund, which is raised from taxes on airline tickets. State and local officials can also get in the way of, among other things, airport expansion projects.

...AOPA Has Its Say; You Can, Too

The FAA is still accepting comments from the public for the Web version of the draft plan (the published form has already been printed) and the agency promises that input will be considered. AOPA is among the groups that has gone over the draft and discovered at least one glaring omission. "... The FAA's draft plan does not deal with the effects of aviation security requirements on GA traffic ..." thundered President Phil Boyer in news release. Boyer said a strategy to soften the impact of security-related restrictions on GA is needed. AOPA is also worried that a new training program called the FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS) program (PDF file) might become a financial drain on pilots and a cash cow for manufacturers and insurance companies. FITS is supposed to be an optional training program in which pilots of new, more technologically advanced aircraft effectively take type training on the plane they want to buy. Boyer said AOPA is worried that the manufacturers and insurers may make the FITS training mandatory for those interested in buying a new aircraft even though the FAA considers it optional. Boyer also says he's all for international cooperation but not if it means regulations in the U.S. that hamstring GA or are not in "America's best interest."