Should The FAA Be Run By A Pilot?
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.
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.