Reform the FAA? How Would You Do It?

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If you woke up tomorrow and were suddenly King, to be challenged by no man or woman and could do as you please with, say, the FAA, what would you do? Sixty three percent of you would reform it from top to bottom if the results of last weekís poll†question were accurate.

Surmising that this equates to a politicianís negatives, can we extrapolate that the FAA has a 63 percent disapproval rating? Perhaps thatís a reach, but even Iíll admit that I was surprised at how many people would overhaul the FAA if given the chance. The sentiment is worth examining because, frankly, itís impractical. What you really want to overhaul is Congress. We get a chance to do that every two years and fail at it. Miserably.

You can prove me wrong in the comment section below, but I think if asked to advance to the front of the class and stand before the whiteboard listing ways to reform the FAA, most of us couldnít do much specific with the question. And those of us who could might be pulled up short by the smart kids in the first row who would say things like, ďwell, actually, Congress requires the FAA to do that.Ē One ambitious reader wrote us to say rather than reform it, we should just do away with the FAA entirely. He didnít offer a timeline, but I got the feeling he had in mind a couple of weeks.

But seriously, to understand the challenge of reforming or eliminating the FAA, itís helpful to understand where it came from. Itís basically the manifestation of society seeing a governmental role in promoting, building and regulating an aviation transportation system that everyone knew would become a big deal. As a country, we were right to do that. Now as all government agencies tend to do, the FAA has metastasized to the point that its original mission may be obscured and we all know some of the FAAís regulations give the word excess a bad name. But on balance, snipping away the polyps of really bad law would be a challenge indeed.

One reason for this is that ďreformĒ suggests a fundamental reset of the way the agency works when whatís really needed is a reshaping of some of its administrative initiatives. For exampleóthe first bullet on my whiteboard--everyone hates the Third Class medical, except for maybe the AME community. No one cites meaningful data proving that it materially improves safety, yet through administrative inertia going back a half a century, weíre stuck with it. But getting rid of it wonít require FAA reform, just a champion somewhere in the agency or in Congress. By now, I donít even think it requires much political or bureaucratic exposure to achieve it. Itís just that the stars havenít aligned yet. They will eventually.

You want radical? Iíll give you radical. Iíd like to see the FAA all but entirely out of the certification business for aircraft under a certain weight. Six thousand pounds is the magic number tossed around. Essentially, thatís where we are with LSA manufacturing. The industry self polices with just cursory FAA oversight. The ongoing revision of Part 23 heads generally in this direction, but Iím not sure it goes far enough and I have been skeptical that it will play out with meaningful effect.

Still, Congress is in on the game and last month, the Senate passed the Small Airplane Revitalization Act of 2013 that gives the FAA the enabling legislation to write specific regulations. This is, at least, is a step in the right direction and may even constitute reform of sorts. Even if we in the U.S. wanted yet more streamlined cert rules, itís not clear to me that itís possible unless the rest of international† agencies who participated in this revision go along. If you think the FAA is composed of competitive Duchies, you ought to get a taste of the European Union.

Itís almost accepted fact that the FAAóand government in generalóis rife with waste and duplication. While I think this is probably true, I donít think itís nearly as widespread as most of us assume. A popular suggestion is to simply reduce the FAAís budget by some arbitrary amountómaybe 5 percentóand let it deal with it. Itís the whither-it-on-the-vine strategy. With less money, the FAA wonít be able to interfere as much. Nice idea, but it only works if the agencyís responsibilities are commensurately reduced. Otherwise, all you achieve is reducing government resources to do the same amount of work, making things worse. (See Congress, above.)

What about privatization of these services? Always a possibility. Canada has done that and so has New Zealand. We donít hear complaints about socialized air traffic control. Well, maybe we do. Feel fee to comment on the topic below, pro or con.

In the end, I think if most of us had a clearer view of what we let the Congress ask the FAA to do and how that sausage gets squeezed through the grate, we would have a more realistic view of what ďreformĒ actually means. Even small government acolytes might find themselves surprised if approach procedures and facilities start disappearing, AIP projects dry up and pilot certification becomes even slower than it already is if budgets are simply slashed without Congress also removing things from the FAA plate. I just donít see how itís possible to have one without the other so if youíre reform minded, be careful what you wish for.

Join the conversation. †Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (14)

Really Paul, we couldn't reform FAA if asked? I wholeheartedly disagree.

How about canning their latest spin on the third-class medical that requires $3000+ sleep testing every year if your BMI is not perfect? The chief AME has said he will test everyone until we all are treated down to BMIs of 30 or even less. ALL of us.

This is the death knell for GA. Very few of us over 45 years of age have BMIs below 25 (which is the "normal" level where they imply the testing will stop). At 6"-2" you have to below 195 lbs. I'm guessing at least 30% of the pilot population will lose their medical over this latest fiasco due to impossible costs. Don't tell me its about "safety" that's B.S. and we all know it.

The longstanding attempt to eliminate the 3rd class medical was merely a drunken illusion by an overly optimistic aviation community. The hard reality id that the FAA is an entrenched bureaucracy that will never change.

Posted by: A Richie | November 19, 2013 8:06 PM    Report this comment

We don't get to reform the Kings. The Kings are in the process of blowing our candles out and they are setting it up to be a final act. People have to come up with new justifications and reasons to put up with this level of chicanery and if we don't get our horses tied up pretty quickly, Obama will end General Aviation through his Super Nanny government before he leaves office. Plus, what nobody is yet talking about, this little BMI joke coming out of Okidopey City is setting precedent to eliminate the currently non medical group of aviators. How could we possibly justify to have sport pilots with no medical in the future? Whats going on is nothing short of a bad Monty Python sketch. In fact Monty Python would be embarrassed to put this in front of people as satire.

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 20, 2013 7:52 AM    Report this comment

And just to add for information... this is not just affecting Class III medicals.

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 20, 2013 7:56 AM    Report this comment

I feel it's more about policy reform than organization reform. If I recall correctly, at one time the FAA's mandate was to both promote aviation as well as regulate its safety, but Congress removed the "promote aviation" part. In my opinion, that has been nothing but a disaster, with the FAA spending far too much time and resources in trying to punish controllers and pilots for even the smallest of infractions. Perhaps all of our policy makers should be required to get educated in, well, education; then they might learn that punishment is not nearly effective a learning tool as positive reinforcement is (though both do have their places).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 20, 2013 7:59 AM    Report this comment

Well said, Gary. I wonder if the hidden agenda behind stunts like this isn't in reality that the FAA will be hard pressed to "safely integrate" some 30K drones into the NAS system. Maybe its some haphazard attempt to regulate at least 40% (maybe more) of the hobby flyers out of the sky so that the rest of this draconian idiocy will go over easier. So far at least EAA has picked the issue up, even though the reaction from the FAA seems to be as stone-faced as it was when EAA had to pay the extortion fees to have controllers present during OSH.

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 20, 2013 8:12 AM    Report this comment

Are we talking about the Federal Aviation Administration? Burn the headset man!

"Our Mission: Our continuing mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.

Our Vision: We strive to reach the next level of safety, efficiency, environmental responsibility and global leadership. We are accountable to the American public and our stakeholders.

Our Values: Safety is our passion. We work so all air and space travelers arrive safely at their destinations.

Excellence is our promise. We seek results that embody professionalism, transparency and accountability.

Integrity is our touchstone. We perform our duties honestly, with moral soundness, and with the highest level of ethics.

People are our strength. Our success depends on the respect, diversity, collaboration, and commitment of our workforce.

Innovation is our signature. We foster creativity and vision to provide solutions beyond today's boundaries."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 20, 2013 9:14 AM    Report this comment

Let's see:
1. Eliminate the 3rd class medical
2. Increase LSA weight to include C152s and so that LSAs can incorporate heavier structures and more safety systems
3. Reduce equipment certification so that new engines, avionics, and other systems can advance without being held up waiting years for FAA approval
4. Force a reduction in FAA NextGen staff and contractors so that the program becomes more focused rather than a scattershot of too many bits and pieces with no coherent architecture (or goals!)
5. Change the FAA's mission back to what it used to be: to promoting aviation rather than only trying to increase safety
6. But most importantly, change the culture of the FAA by changing the types of people hired by the agency: Hire people who know how to think and innovate, rather than those who only know how to follow orders, rules, and regulations. The culture needs to move away from acting like the military or ATC, and towards the technology industry. Maybe FAA offices should be moved from DC and OKC to Silicon Valley.

Posted by: DAVE PASSMORE | November 20, 2013 9:25 AM    Report this comment

I've always felt that the dual roles of promoting aviation and regulating aviation safety to be at odds. I believe the safety aspect should be given to the NTSB to manage.And let's face it, the "promoting aviation" role is really "don't adversely effect the airlines' profits".

Posted by: Jerry Plante | November 20, 2013 9:50 AM    Report this comment

Paul, You are dead on! What most pilots fail to realize is that their own desires and actions have created this bureacratic monster. Lack of responsibility is the current culture.... and the culprit. If the GA fatal accident rate went down then a lot of the bureacracy would wither.
Congress has not funded the FAA since 2007 and makes it hard to run on a 90 day financial leash. They have also asked for "data" for every issue that has built an administrative empire. And if the FAA does nor rule then they will. YET Congress fails to give the oversight they are required to do because they dont know how. The FAA should be reduced to a regulatory agency and drop a lot of the frills like giving a school by La Guardia 25 million dollars for super sound proofing (what Congress person pushed this?) and another by Newark 5 million( Once again whose prodding started this?) It all starts with us not holding Congress accountable and pilots responsible.

Posted by: R T | November 20, 2013 10:25 AM    Report this comment

The CAA here in UK decided that aircraft under 2 tons (2000 kg, or 4500 pounds depending on which measurement system you use) did not need a full PPL hence the NPPL (National Private Pilots Licence). This was a godsend for those unable to pass a full medical and this helped GA in uk but EASA is not so sure, now we have to get a LAPL and I wonder if this will affect the GA community in the UK.

Seems there is a world wide move to try to uplift GA by streamlining procedures, but methinks its too little too late and it does not address the land developers issue, taking airports (brown fields) and turning them into housing projects.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | November 20, 2013 12:34 PM    Report this comment

EXcellent op-ed... asking the folks to 'put money where mouth is'... squelch the 'whiners' and say, EXACTLY what do you want them to cut?...
rather than generalized 'hate govt interference'... I was saved by ATC telling me a Lear was coming up from the deck... near SantaFe...
'LOVE ATC... HNBunte

Posted by: HOWARD BUNTE | November 20, 2013 2:50 PM    Report this comment

This is what my neighbor Klondike, the Alaskan, thinks should be done.

Plan A: Privatize the FAA and while doing this pull the reins on the NextGen program. The 2020 ADS-B requirements, while interesting, will send GA to the crapper. GA's can't be financially burdened any more. The WAAS and the RNAV programs are good.

Plan B: Cut the fat. We don't need to keep supporting 47,000 FAA employees. Reduce the FAA's workforce at the same rate as that of the yearly decline of the pilot population.
Existing Air Traffic Controllers should be able to handle all to 2030, in the meantime everyone works traffic, this includes management.
Close all control towers with less than 50,000 annual operations.
Let the Wings program be self-sufficient and run by all volunteers as in the EAA Young Eagles and now the Eagles program.
Close FSDOs a la FSS mode.
No medical for private pilots under sixty.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 20, 2013 10:02 PM    Report this comment

Split the FAA into a division over GA with a mission designed to its particular needs and another over the airlines/big iron. Upper management would have to sync them where they meet, such as airspace rules and other crossing matrix. Insist that safety not hinder freedom and be balanced by cost.
My pet peeve is the structure for commercial aviation at the margins. It's just too restrictive for little in the way of real benefit. It's mostly a CYA culture that has made it very difficult to break in or really prosper at that level. I think this is the #1 place that a growth factor for GA can be stimulated. Figure out a system that would let a person earn a living in a Skyhawk (so to speak) without the FAA imposed expenses of American Airlines. In today's economy such an effort would be a boon to GA.

Posted by: Michael Mahoney | November 21, 2013 8:11 AM    Report this comment

Paul, that's not fair, you gave us carte blanche to reform the FAA, then said we couldn't do it because ....... So you're saying that, like banks, it is too big to change and that it doesn't need to be changed anyway because things could be worse. On the other hand you may be right, if health care reform is any indicator.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 21, 2013 8:33 AM    Report this comment

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