NOTE: Following Capt. Baiada’s editorial, we’ve published
As I read Ms. Garvey’scomments in a letter she wrote to USA Today (“FAA out Front on Safety,”in the August 20, 1997 issue), what struck me most was not FAA’s after-the-fact actions,but her assurance that things are getting better and that positive things are being done.Given FAA’s dismal track record and my own personal observations, this seems hardly thecase.
The FAA was once a national treasure that was the model for aviation authoritiesworldwide, but is now a national embarrassment. Instead of improvement, the FAA simplyshifts things around with little of substance actually being improved. FAA is always lateoff the mark and never seems to get it right. For the twenty years I have worked with theFAA, involved in various projects (mostly ATC-related), and as a Captain for a majorairline, none of this surprises me any longer. What is surprising is that nothing is everdone about it.
The NTSB’s recent probable cause report placed a fair amount of blame for the ValuJetaccident on FAA’s inaction to ValuJet’s problems. But most do not realize that the FAAdivision responsible for the safety of our aviation system – the Flight Standardsdivision – is the smaller of the FAA’s two operating divisions. The FAA’s other, muchlarger division is the Air Traffic Control service (ATC).
The ATC division – which contrary to popular belief has no regulatory authority -provides separation services for the aircraft flying in the United States airspace.Unfortunately, as big a structural problem as the ValueJet crash highlighted in the FAA’sFlight Standards division, FAA’s ATC side of the house is in far worse shape. Equipmentfailures are routine. Air traffic controllers are overloaded and staffing levels are toolow at many ATC facilities. Software is out-of-date and poorly documented. Hardware isembarrassingly antiquated.
FAA upgrade programs fail one after the other. New controller workstations (DSR andSTARS), over $2 billion worth of new hardware, are less capable than the equipment theyreplace. Test and implementation cycles are so long that when the equipment is installed(if it ever is installed at all), it’s already obsolete. Billions of dollars have beenwasted on programs that never will see the light of day. I could go on and on.
But again, nothing is ever done about it.
A meltdown of the ATC system is only a matter of time. In fact, the separation systemhas already broken down more than once with deadly consequences. The crash of the USAiraircraft in Los Angeles a few years ago was a clear breakdown of the ATC system. Thecontroller was distracted and the pilot did not see the commuter aircraft parked on therunway and disaster followed. The recent KAL accident in Guam is yet another example.Although the NTSB will undoubtedly blame these accidents on human error, failure of FAAshardware, software and process in the overloaded ATC system are very strong factors thatled to the L.A. and Guam crashes. In both cases, the FAA failed to provide the controllerwith the necessary tools to handle the workload. With the right tools, ATC might well haveprevented these accidents, but we will never know.
The FAA has never applied the same rigorous rules to their ATC system software thatthey apply to the aircraft flying in the system. For aircraft software, FAA’s FlightStandards division is tasked to monitor and evaluate all software that is installed intoevery commercial aircraft as an independent third-party. In principal, Flight Standardshas no vested interest in an aircraft getting certified, and safety is their only concern(although some would dispute this). But there is no such cross-check for the ATC systemsoftware. Although FAA will say that ATC software is fully evaluated, this check is doneby people that have a vested interest in the software getting approved. Could bettersoftware certification have prevented the Guam accident. Again, we will never know.
Time and again, the FAA has proven that it is no longer technically capable ofmaintaining the ATC system. Yet, while airline CEOs devote their energies on lobbyingCongress to influence how the FAA collects money, they ignore how the FAA spends money.All the while, the FAA wastes billions on ill-fated attempts to modernize and upgrade thecrumbling ATC system, without any tangible progress.
A recent book by ex-DOT Inspector General Mary Schiavo argues that the problem with theFAA is that it is in the airlines’ back pocket. I disagree. In my opinion, the FAA answersto no one, and never has – not Congress, not DOT, not GAO, and certainly not their”customers.” Pilots, suppliers, and, yes, even the airlines are afraid of theFAA and refuse to “rock the boat.”
FAA’s ATC equipment problems can be easily fixed, but I am not sure the management andcultural issues can. I have heard from more than one person that the FAA is the mostarrogant organization in Washington. This is not the atmosphere and culture upon which weshould build our aviation safety net.
I’m not suggesting that the FAA be privatized, nor that they should be given moremoney. FAA cries pauper, but has squandered ten times the money it needs to fix itsproblems. What the FAA needs is real leadership, something it hasn’t had in recent memory.The Administration and Congress left the FAA leaderless for nine months. Now that FAAfinally has someone at the top, Ms. Garvey has a very short window of opportunity to exertthe leadership necessary to solve FAA’s problems. Although new to the job, the politicalcorrectness of Ms. Garvey’s letter to USA Today shows that she is off in the wrongdirection.
Dear Captain Baiada,
I read with great relief your opinions about the FAA ATC division. I can onlysay “Thank God” someone other than controllers and other FAA grunts see the FAAAir Traffic managers for what they are: arrogant and incompetent. For every honest managerin Air Traffic who actually tries to do a good job, there must be at least fifty who don’tcare about anything other than protecting their own job.
I am a 15-year veteran center controller at our nations busiest center:Cleveland. Employee morale is at an all time low, for many of the reasons you mentioned inyour article plus other local and internal management problems. Many large facilities likeCleveland are the FAAs dumping grounds for managers who have misbehaved in otherfacilities. They are sent to a place where they can disappear in the crowd – butinevitably the management style that got them in trouble in the first place resurfaces intheir new facility.
I used to believe that controller burnout was a myth, but now I know it does exist. Yetthe cause is not what is usually portrayed in the press: the “stress” of workingtraffic. That’s the fun and easy part of the job. The real stress comes from dealing everyday with incompetent, rigid and yes, stupid, managers and controllers who think pilots andairplanes exist because of the FAA Air Traffic Division, instead of the other way around.The word “service” is not part of their vocabulary. Unfortunately, I see theincompetence and a non-service-oriented attitude slowly taking over.
I become eligible to retire in approximately five years. There isn’t much I can imaginethat would change my mind about leaving on the first day I become eligible.
You are correct when you say that nothing is ever done about any of the bad behaviorand mismanagement rampant in the FAA Air Traffic Division. If you dare to speak up youbecome the target of many subtle means of harassment by management. That is why, althoughI would like to be able to identify myself to you, I can’t take the chance.
Please keep writing about these subjects and revealing these truths to those who arenaive and trusting of Big Brother. Someday, perhaps, the FAA will have to answer tosomeone.
I used to be proud of my job, but now I hate to even admit to people what I do for aliving. I’ve been involved in aviation for nearly 26 years, as pilot, flight instructorand now controller. I know we still have the safest system in the world, but I amconcerned about how long it will last.
The FAA has a serious problem with equipment, despite what their PR people say. Iunderstand they are about to scrap a system designed for the approach controls (moremillions wasted) and have multiple problems with the DSR (Display System Replacement)under development for the centers (this comes after throwing away billions on the ISSS).Right now the DSR is unusable, though the FAA is plowing ahead with it anyway. Iunderstand that NATCA (the controllers union) will not accept it in its presentcondition.
The FAA’s incompetence with regard to equipment is only part of the problem. The AirTraffic System in the U.S. is operating today because of the dedication and oftenextra-human efforts of the people running it day to day: controllers and airway facilitytechnicians. I know of no one who would intentionally put an aircraft in danger. But I doknow of people who have become so demoralized by the FAAs heavy-handed managementapproach that they no longer “go the extra mile” or put in the extra effort tohelp.
A Cleveland Center controller who does care