Should The FAA Be Run By A Pilot?

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General aviation pilots have several auto-fume modes. One of them is ADS-B and anything to do with medicals is a good way to get people spun up. So is the argument that the administrator of the FAA should be a pilot.

This is a perennial and it came up last week when President Donald Trump met with airline executives. What we should really be freaked about is that he met with a transportation sector all but dedicated to the demise of general aviation with no one else at the table. The side discussion revolved around Trump’s surprise that FAA Administrator Michael Huerta is not a pilot. Trump’s view is that he should be because the ATC system is so complex that actually having flown in it would be helpful.

But is it really? I think the answer is an inarguable yes. But does a pilot certificate trump (sorry) the must-have skills as, you know, an administrator? My view has always been no. I’d rather have a strong administrator with political connections and inside knowledge of how modern government works—or doesn’t work—than a hot stick who has to learn that stuff on the job in the snake pit of D.C. politics. If complexity were reduced to a scale of 10, understanding ATC would be about a six; understanding the machinations of federal agencies and the internecine politics would be a 19.

Until not that long ago, FAA administrators had always been pilots. Including Michael Huerta, there have been 19 FAA administrators. Fifteen of these have been pilots, four have been drawn from the professional career government management corps. The FAA top job isn’t a cabinet position—that belongs to SecDot—but it’s a presidential-level appointment requiring Senate approval that’s not given to political hacks in the way ambassadorships are. When drawn from inside government, administrators have typically had high-level government managerial experience. Jane Garvey, for instance, was both the first woman and the first non-pilot to hold the job. She had been administrator of the Federal Highway Administration and a transportation official in Massachusetts. (Boston residents may not recall her warmly if the Big Dig is mentioned.) She served under President Bill Clinton and was later criticized for negotiating too-expensive contracts with air traffic controllers.

Did it make a difference that she wasn’t a pilot? Hard to say. We cover the administrator from 10,000 feet and aren’t privy to the day to day. At AirVenture, we practically get into fistfights over who will be forced to do the administrator interview because they’re so boring. With Michael Huerta, we simply politely decline the FAA’s offer for press availability because we know the answers will be so banal and I grew weary of explaining why we did the interview in the first place. But that has nothing to do with effectiveness as an administrator. I’ve been told by a couple of sources that Huerta is quite effective inside the agency and in working with small groups.

On paper, Randy Babbitt was the ideal administrator. He came from an airline aviation background, had experience running an airline union so he understood organizational politics and he was just a decent guy. Like all government agencies, the FAA is run by the equivalent of NCOs—the mid-level bureaucrats—who grind out the meetings, churn the data and write the regs and they can sure enough use that stuff to roll the boss.

I saw it happen in real time at AirVenture in 2011. At the time, General Aviation Modifications had stirred up interest in an unleaded avgas replacement by pursuing an STC for approvals. When asked about this, Babbitt parroted exactly what the mid-level FAA staff had been saying to complicate and stall GAMI’s STC at every step. He said STCs had never been done for aviation fuel and doing it that way would create a cumbersome and complex standard, requiring duplicative work by the FAA.

But the FAA had approved several fuel STCs and could have readily approved GAMI’s filing for further testing. Once approved, it could have lived or died in the market. That would have been proper public policy. Instead, six years later, it’s still not done. Babbitt being a pilot didn’t help him look down into the problem and twist the staff levers to do the right thing. I suspect President Trump is learning this lesson several times a day. Compared to the federal bureaucracy, an oil tanker turns on a dime.

So given my druthers, unless the pilot is a skilled administrator and political infighter—not to mention survivor—I’d just as soon put a professional manager in the chair. He or she can always take flying lessons, provided of course the waiting line isn’t too long due thanks to the vast influx of BasicMed returnees soon to choke the flight schools.

Doc Shopping

And speaking of BasicMed, I spent the morning shopping for a doctor to sign the checklist. Encouragingly, I found two—both AMEs, one of whom works in a Doc-in-the-Box. I have several other calls out that haven’t been returned yet.

As I reported, my regular doc declined to sign the checklist and my regular AME demurred, too. The fact that 30 minutes of doc shopping revealed two possibilities makes me believe others will have similar experiences. Of course, they haven’t seen the checklist yet, but an agreement in principle is better than a flat no.

Brent Blue, an AME himself, told me doctors working in urgent care facilities routinely sign such affirmation for DOT-regulated truckers, so they are likely to do the same for BasicMed. Hell, maybe I’ll stay in this flying game a little longer after all.        

Comments (22)

What I want in an Administrator is someone who understands the positions of and the needs of their constituents. In the case of the FAA, "constituents" covers a vast array of disparate interests. Certainly, pilots' interests should be among those served. Should that require a pilot-administrator? If not, then from whom should the Administrator seek input when considering GA pilot interests and perspectives?

Kind of an awkward question, considering the alphabets' recent feckless abandonment of those interests, vis a vis BasicMed. Awkward but apparently necessary. Paul's valid points notwithstanding, I think that this is one of those times when it's important to have the helm manned by someone who has lived the GA experience as a pilot, an aircraft owner, and a medical certificate holder - maybe even someone whose medical certificate was denied or revoked. There's nothing like being there, to polish your perspective.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 14, 2017 1:57 PM    Report this comment

Absolutely, all you have to do is look at the FAA now and see what having a career bureaucrat as administrator has done. It took going directly to congress to get the FAA to move on the medical issue and it still is a mess. The ATP issue for pt 121 copilot training requirements could have been handled better but the FAA took the easy route and look what we have now. At the very least the next Adminstrator should be an active and current certificated pilot.

Posted by: matthew wagner | February 14, 2017 2:02 PM    Report this comment

Hey that's good news about your doc-shopping results Paul. Let's hope that is typical in most areas of the country; I didn't know that about the truckers, maybe there is some hope after all.

Posted by: A Richie | February 14, 2017 2:40 PM    Report this comment

I think you're right, Paul. Just keeping government agencies running more or less smoothly is a major accomplishment; actually bringing in improvements is a stretch goal. If some day there's a truly bad (or just incompetent) administrator and staff at the FAA, you'll know; as long as the complaints are just about all rule changes and the occasional foot-dragging over innovation, then everything's just fine.

Posted by: David Megginson | February 14, 2017 4:06 PM    Report this comment

Paul, your observation about Urgent Care facilities is correct. In fact, I usually see a sign there that advertises for you to bring your required DOT/employment/school sports/whatever physicals there. They even beg for the business on their website. It doesn't get much easier than that!

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | February 14, 2017 4:39 PM    Report this comment

Somebody like Jerome Randolph "Randy" Babbitt

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 14, 2017 6:24 PM    Report this comment

I don't disagree in principal with your premise that the Administrator doesn't necessarily have to be a pilot BUT ... it surely would help a lot. Commanders of military flight squadrons are drawn from the best of those within and often continue to fly with their subordinates for a reason. As they move on to higher levels of responsibility and authority, they fly less but don't forget the skills from whence they came. In order to accede to higher rank, they do have to broaden their managerial skills by accepting 'desk' jobs and adding new skill sets to their bag of 'tricks.' They don't start by being a good administrator and later learning how to fly. It's the other way around. Before you become a General, you have to first be a Second Lieutenant. Yars is right.

Said differently, empathy is a part of being a good administrator. You don't get that when you graduate from a military academy or earn an MBA. One gets it when they operate in the day-to-day environment learning the mundane lower level skills of their trade FIRST. You don't become an A380 pilot the day you receive a private pilot certificate for that reason.

The real problem here is that the Administrator IS a political appointee. He may well have been a good ship captain with connections in every port but that doesn't help an awful lot if you're trying to fly that same A380. Just because you can talk the talk doesn't mean you can walk the walk ... OR lead. And that's the problem we have currently. Giving speeches does not an Administrator make.

For 25 years until 2013, the FAA operated it's 'Center for Management and Executive Leadership (CMEL) in rural Palm Coast, FL. It's been superseded by something called FLLI ... FAA Leadership and Learning Institute. Either way, it's a "finishing" school for FAA leaders. THAT is where the Administrator should either come from or, as a minimum, have attended.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 15, 2017 5:43 AM    Report this comment

Either a pilot or a mechanic with Inspecyion authorization. Tell me why an experimenta or Light Sport owner can install an inexpensive unit that meet ADS-B requirements, but it can't be installed in a certified aircraft because it doesn't6 have a T.S.O. If the cheap one does the job in the first two types, why won't it do the job in the certified type. The FAA is "ate up" with lawyers and that is the main problem.

Posted by: Richard Warner | February 15, 2017 9:18 AM    Report this comment

The answer might be in the reverse of the question:

Why shouldn't the administrator be a Pilot!

Posted by: Thomas W. Williamson | February 15, 2017 9:25 AM    Report this comment

There are pilots and then there are pilots.

Take a pilot that is trained by the Navy to be a carrier qual'd fighter pilot. He gets out in seven years and goes to work for a major air carrier. Works there for 20 plus years and moves up into the manager ranks.

He has never flown a piston powered anything. He has never flown without filing a flight plan. He is a superb pilot and now a manager.

He will have about as much in common with general aviation as a truck driver. How will that kind of a pilot help general aviation? Actually, the truck driver may be more sensitive to the needs of the general aviation community.

So no, the FAA administrator does not need to be a pilot.

Posted by: Jeff Land | February 15, 2017 9:55 AM    Report this comment

The FAA is far more than just an entity that regulates pilots. The argument that the administrator should be a pilot carries less weight than would an argument that the administrator should be an air traffic controller, since ATC is a much larger part of the organization.

FAA is a complex entity. The world of pilot regulation differs from the world of airport design differs from the world of ATC differs from the world of commercial space. We are asking one person to run all of that stuff. (Well, unless ATC gets spun off.)

So the point that the administrator needs first to be skilled at running a large complex organization. Extra points for a demonstrated passion for aviation, but that can take many forms. If we get into valuing the various silos, then GA becomes just another small special interest. The question is, do you really want to go there?

Posted by: Ken Ibold | February 15, 2017 10:23 AM    Report this comment

I nominate Paul Dye for FAA administrator.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | February 15, 2017 10:56 AM    Report this comment

"Hell, maybe I'll stay in this flying game a little longer after all." Paul, we all hope you stick around for a long time. Just don't buzz a 737 and land on a taxiiway, and you should be okay. ;-)

Unfortunately, the perfect administrator does not exist, and certainly not in the ranks of career bureaucrats that infest Washington. I find it amusing that the FAA has a leadership training institute, considering the antiquated, close-minded approach most of their managers display. The only thing a successful bureaucrat is good at is going with the flow. No one is encouraged to take a chance or think outside conventional boxes because that is where risk and possible failure lurk. Guess wrong one time and your upward mobility is shot. Keep your head down and don't make waves and you will progress up the hill. The GAMI fuel STC is a classic example. Six years later, the FAA can't seem to find a suitable unleaded replacement, but GAMI is still doing development outside the program and is probably closer than Shell or Swift.

Having a pilot's license does not guarantee success, but it at least gives the leader an understanding of how the system does (or does not) work. A more important attribute would be an ability to clearly identify and advocate for what changes are needed as well as the talent to motivate unwilling minions to go along. Good luck with that.

Posted by: John McNamee | February 15, 2017 11:28 AM    Report this comment

The FAA Administrator should have aviation experience. Mr Huerta did not know there was a General Aviation when he started to work for the FAA. A small industry that General Aviation providing 1.2 million jobs and contributing 216 BILLION to the US economy.

The FAA has a budget of 18 BILLION dollars and so far the safety programs fall short with no reduction in accidents even though the industry has suffered a 50% loss in operations.

Yes the next Administrator should have an aviation would a general command his troops if he has never shot a gun or been in combat?

Posted by: Richard Wyeroski | February 15, 2017 5:58 PM    Report this comment

After reading everyone's comments, the requirement should be 'aircraft ownership'. Aircraft owners are the ones that learn the dark side of the industry and will have the greatest desire to change things.
Replacement Parts availability and prices.
Log Books
Registration (36 months)
Presumed guilty (even if you land on a taxiway)

I'm sure that every owner can add to this list....

Senator James Inhofe might have a friend that can do the job.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | February 15, 2017 8:38 PM    Report this comment

Klaus, great idea.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | February 15, 2017 9:34 PM    Report this comment

"Join me (?) in Florida this Saturday (Feb. 18) at 5pm for a rally at the Orlando-Melbourne International Airport!" Trump tweeted.

Should be interesting. Good time/place/platform to promote a new FAA Administrator

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 16, 2017 8:51 AM    Report this comment

Speaking of jobs for pilots...

Two brothers go into an employment agency seeking work. The first one describes his expert skill as a woodcutter, and the Employment Agent says "I'm sorry sir, but we have no jobs available for that. Please come back next month and check again."

His brother then approaches the counter and says "I'm a pilot." The agent lights up and says "A pilot! Well, well, I have several good openings for you, which one would you be interested in and can you start today?"

The brother says, "No, you don't understand; he has to cut the wood first, and then I pile it!"

Posted by: A Richie | February 16, 2017 11:00 AM    Report this comment

For those who believe that the AOPA or EAA is responsible for BasicMed, I'd like to set the record straight. In order to understand it all, you must analyze actions chronologically.

Go back to 2014 when -- after two years of wrangling -- the Administrator told us at Airventure that the (simpler) AOPA / EAA request for exemption from third class medical requirements had been signed off at FAA and was in executive level review at DOT and OMB. He said he couldn't tell us about it for "ex parte reasons." He told us that it might take 90 days or so and we'd know what it contained. Everyone there was upbeat that something would finally happen soon.

Lack of timely action on that exemption set off the current parallel path Congressional thrust toward medical reform on Feb 25, 2015 when Sen. Inhofe initially introduced PBOR II as S.571. It was a short and dedicated Bill of 38 pages; after markup, it passed the Senate on Dec 15, 2015 and was referred to the House. Basic Med was a part of it because Sen Inhofe could not get enough favorable support for PBOR II without including BasicMed. PBOR II took the altitude, seating, VFR only, gear, and other limitations of the AOPA/EAA exemption away but added the online course.

In the House, HR 4441 was introduced as the "Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016" on Feb 3, 2016 by Rep Schuster (R-PA) and five cosponsors. The tenets of PBOR II was rolled into it. It DID NOT contain BasicMed. Because agreement on ATC privatization couldn't be reached, the bill didn't go anywhere so the FAA had to be funded by a 90 day CR in March 2016.

Move back to Feb 2, 2015 when the FAA Extension, Safety, Security and Security Act of 2016 HR 636 was introduced. Ultimately, after markup, resolving of differences and rolling PBOR II and other items into it, it was signed by the President on July 15, 2016. It gave the FAA six months to write the rules and another six to codify it all; Administrator Huerta told us at Airventure 2016 that the FAA would meet the Congressional mandate ... and SO far, they have.

So BasicMed (the part where a physician visit every four years was required) came from the Congress. Sen Inhofe told a forum on Saturday July 30, 2016, that he "had to include" it into the legislation or he couldn't get support. He identified ALPA and a FL Senator as primary antagonists in that transation. AC 68-1 reflects exact language in the House Bill finally signed into law last summer as PL 114-190.

And THAT is how we got to here from there. AOPA and EAA were lobbying for the various bills but did not write them. The FAA MAY have been complicit in adding BasicMed but I have no proof of that. As someone said, BasicMed was a poison pill we all had to swallow IF we wanted reform.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 16, 2017 3:58 PM    Report this comment

Paul, do you really want a strange doctor from the doc in the box doing your rectal exams as part of the BasicMed??

Posted by: Richard Mutzman | February 17, 2017 7:30 AM    Report this comment

Larry. Thanks for delineating the evolution of BasicMed. It's been obvious that pro-GA lobbyists were discounted allowing for the "medical reform" to become politicized and turn into a misfire after failed efforts by EAA and AOPA. Much of the GA community is NOT ecstatic.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 17, 2017 10:01 AM    Report this comment

A good place to find a doctor willing to sign off on the FAA BasicMed medical is a DOT approved medical examiner used by the Interstate Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers (Truck, bus drivers). These operators are required to pass a medical exam every 24 months given by a DOT Certified Medical Examiner. The checklist form used for the DOT exam is very much like the draft version of the FAA BasicMed checklist (see attachments below).

To find a local DOT certified medical examiner:

DOT medical exam checklist:

FAA medical exam checklist (see pages 24 to 31 of the .pdf):

Posted by: Andre Berthet | February 17, 2017 12:43 PM    Report this comment

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