Does The FAA Seem Nastier Than Usual?


Stories about confrontations with the FAA are legion among just about every sector in aviation but I seem to be detecting an even more combative stance by the agency that everyone loves to hate.

The MAX debacle put the agency on the ropes and it seems to be fighting its way back into the ring with a kind of nasty attitude toward fellow government agencies that inevitably overlap its jurisdiction. That’s not to say the FAA has a reputation of playing nice with anyone but there’s an edge there that I haven’t noticed before.

Perhaps the most glaring example is its dismissal of the NTSB’s bid to play an active role in the investigation of commercial space incidents. That seems like a no-brainer to me. The NTSB is the gold standard for transportation accident investigations and now that paying customers are about to be taking rocket rides some expertise in that area would be welcome I would think.

But shortly after the NTSB announced it was going to set up the structure to investigate space-related mishaps, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told the Board to butt out and mind its own business. The pointed slap down was accompanied by the gratuitous piece of advice that the NTSB “refocus on its current successful working relationship with the FAA.” Somehow I doubt the NTSB will take that advice to heart. Stay tuned.

Of course there was also the whole 5G mess. It’s not often that Cabinet-level turf wars reach the president’s desk but that’s what it took to make the FCC and the FAA play nice and work toward a solution that gets us fast mobile service and keeps air travel safe. In fairness, there was plenty of blame to go around in that debacle but there was no need for it to escalate to the point of crisis before a rushed series of alternative means of compliance (AMOC) allowed most aircraft to continue using their radar altimeters.

But perhaps the most puzzling muscle flex by the FAA involves a much less worthy opponent. The East Hampton Town Board is claiming it was sandbagged by the agency in changing the operation of its airport and I’m inclined to agree. Last September, the town’s obligations to the FAA for past airport funding expired, meaning the town could do whatever it wanted with the facility without the agency taking legal action. Now, I know nothing about the politics of East Hampton but I’m pretty sure the Board and staff asked the FAA what would happen if they transformed the airport into a private facility with the town able to control access.

Regardless of what you think of the idea, the concept of fair play is still in force, in my opinion, and I have to wonder if East Hampton would have pursued the plan if it meant losing IFR access and all the gear that makes that possible for up to two years. That was the gist of the letter the FAA sent to the town after the Board unanimously voted to proceed with the closure/reopening plan last month.

The FAA claims it told the local government that there would be consequences but the supervisor of the board said they had buy-in from FAA officials and the suddenly tough stance was a complete surprise. The truth probably lies somewhere closer to the middle but now another crisis is looming and flight safety is at risk if IFR and air traffic control services disappear at the end of the month.

It would be unrealistic to ask for a kinder, gentler FAA but this seemingly antagonistic posture is ultimately self-destructive in my view. The agency has taken its knocks lately but just as it would be unfair of others to try to exploit that, the FAA should also think twice about lashing out when it perceives a threat to its authority.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Is there a precedent for a privately-owned airport which limits access to users it deems acceptable to have an FAA-staffed and paid for control tower and navigational aids, etc?

    I can’t think of one, but perhaps there are some I don’t know about. I have a really hard time believing that the FAA told East Hampton that they could close their airport and reopen it as a private, restricted-access field, and that the FAA would continue to maintain its equipment there and staff the tower. More likely, I think, is that the city didn’t get a clear answer, or didn’t like the answer they got, and decided to steam ahead and hope for the best. That certainly seems more likely than the scenario you suggest.

    Out here on the other side of the country, we wish the FAA would get a little nastier with airports sometimes, like at KRHV where the county has stopped selling 100LL and is trying to kill the airport for redevelopment. (To their credit, the FAA wrote a stern letter, but I’m not sure they’ve done much else.)

    • This explanation seems eminently plausible. I suspect the intent to make it restricted access either wasn’t clearly set forth in the initial communications, or the FAA types who responded simply assumed the East Hampton contingent already understood the implications of what they were doing. Certainly the FAA wouldn’t have told them they were going to get “free” ATC at a privately-owned non-public use facility.

    • Assuming the town leaders are not stupid (a stretch to some extent) it’s simply a political move, grand standing with lotsa media coverage that claims they were ‘never told’ the public trough was contingent on the airport being a PUBLIC facility. The town can close it, redevelop it, or whatever … assuming state land use law allows it. But a Federal tower? Federal nav facilities, Federal approaches etc.? P.L.E.A.S.E!!! The FAA, the Aviation Trust Fund, and the Federal treasury have no obligation to roll over and write blank checks. Not even to a needy town in a politically connected community.

  2. Complete Guess:

    2 years ago – Town to FAA – “can we close, change the legal entity and reopen a coupler of days later and keep everything the same?”

    2 years ago – Friendly Aviation Administration to Twon – “Yeah – we should be able to do that”.


    Town to FAA – “OK we are going to do the close and repopen thing we talked about

    FAA Ops to FAA legal – “Heads up – changing the names on the paperwork”
    FAA Legal to FAA Ops – “Hang on – we got really dinged over the 737 MAX thing – better do this by the book”
    Ops to Legal – “Like what?”
    Legal to Ops – “Here is what you need to go back and tell them…….”

    And here we are.

    Like I say – complete guess

    • Either that, or it’s a case of FAA saying “you won’t like it” without giving any details, and then only giving the details after the decision was made. But since the town has said they’re going forward with their plans anyway, I seriously doubt if they had all of the facts that they wouldn’t have still decided to go forward with their plans. Ultimately, it’s just a thinly veiled attempt at permanently closing the airport anyway. I can’t say I feel sorry for them.

  3. When dealing with a entity operating from a rulebook as thick as the FAA’s, it depends on who you talk to. It’s unreasonable to think every bureaucrat on the payroll has a working knowledge of every rule in the book. But virtually every bureaucrat at every level of authority within the organizational chart has the authority to deny. Decision-makers rarely deal with any fallout from a denial, now or later. But an approval without running it by higher authorities in the agency is a crapshoot, often resulting in situations like what’s going on with East Hampton’s town management and the airport.

  4. I finally agree with the FAA as it pertains to the East Hampton closure threat. You can’t decide that you will control and limit public access while at the same time demanding that public dollars continue to fund the airport navaids and associated infrastructure. Thank you FAA for correctly telling East Hampton to pound sand.

    • Evidently the Feds deeded the airport to the town after WWII as “surplus to requirements”, with the stipulation that it remain an airport, and with the proviso that it would revert to Federal property if they tried to use the land for something else. Apparently the town’s outside counsel advised them that this was not likely to happen, since no airlines fly there. This may turn into a very high profile game of chicken.

  5. All of the previous comments are plausible-to-likely. OTOH, it would stretch credulity that an airport commission in such a “toney” area would not have access to accomplished legal representation. So to respond to the hard-line stance by the FAA by vowing to go ahead and close the airport, would seem to indicate that they never had any intention of re-opening it in the first place.

  6. The FAA lost there bearings back before grounding Bob Hoover. Those of us in the commercial flying business have been telling reporters for decades about the FAA lacking a chain of command. We knew that the day is coming of a total FAA meltdown due to lack of leadership. The Transportation industry can not be run by political appointees that are serving the latest political whim. The regulations are in place but the politics de jour are pushing the meaning of every rule. My only complaint is that the aviation media has waited so long before reporting this inner FAA conflict that’s spilling over into the daily news. The FAA need to go back to a ‘Chain of Command’ with the top being The Administrator just like the regulations read. Meigs Field in Chicago was an FAA free-for-all in regulations and nobody was punished or ever held accountable. The regulations free-for-all picked up speed and has only been getting worse ever since.

  7. Let’s go back to the original question: “Does the FAA seem nastier than usual?”

    The answer–“No, they aren’t “nastier” than usual–it’s just hard to define DEGREES of nastiness.”

    FAA IS guilty of any number of adjectives–“hidebound, inept, intransigent, bureaucratic, overstaffed, not being mindful of the real world, rooted in the past”–but I don’t think they start out to be “Nasty”–with malice aforethought. THINK about it–it is in the nature of every government agency to increase in size and power (pretty rare to see one get SMALLER!). It has been said “There ARE some good people in the FAA”–and I agree. Most FAA employees didn’t start out to be this way–there are good people that work in a slaughterhouse as well–that doesn’t make them bad people–it’s just a job that has to be done.

    I’d have to say that with some exceptions, the FAA is NOT “Nastier than usual.” I’d “damn them with faint praise”–they are about as nasty as they’ve ever been! (smile)

    • They are nastier in certain regions, though. Our local FSDO has a power-hungry inspector who has thrown the book at a bunch of undeserving instructors and DPEs. He even managed to get one DPE to lose their examiner status for failing to fail a candidate for skipping a non-critical checklist item. And not one candidate has passed their exam whenever this inspector does a ride-along. It has gotten so bad that most of the flight schools are now using examiners from other districts.

      It wasn’t always this way, but sometimes all it takes is one person to make things bad. Unfortunately, there’s really no good way to complain about this since government agencies generally seem loath to question the competency or motives of inspectors.

  8. NTSB the gold standard?!?!? Maybe for incompetence and inefficiency. Given the recent developments in flight safety reporting seen in social media, the NTSB is nearing the end of its practical use life. Private parties have taken the NTSB’s former position in the aviation community. They have done so much more efficiently and at no cost to the taxpayer. There are certainly accidents which require a high level of research and investigation. Those could not be undertaken by private parties. But the FAA could certainly absorb that function, save the government MOST of the cost of the NTSB and create a new corporate efficiency. And they certainly couldn’t be any slower than the NTSB.

    Regarding the Airport closure, my suspicion is that the city board was informed of all the potentials, but chose not to listen. We all know how politicians work these days. Does anyone doubt that they would have heard what they wanted to hear? My experience with the FAA is they have no agenda other than safety. They have no reason to attempt to influence the airport board one way or the other. I believe this is a plan to actually close the airport for good – and have some deniability to appease those voters who would have opposed it.

    • “…the FAA is they have no agenda other than safety.”

      Self sustainability is another FAA agenda item as it is with all governmental agencies.

  9. My only real problem with the FAA was getting / maintained my medical. This was before 3rd class medical reform, but it still was an issue. Along with the physical. If I can / do pass a CDL physical, it should have crossed over for flying. But that would be too logical, so the FAA wouldn’t allow it.

  10. My personal experience dealing with FAA inspectors has been quite positive. However I would suggest like any big organization, there will be a range of personalities, some better than others.

    With respect to the airport issue as a general rule regulators will not answer hypothetical questions. If an operator wants an opinion they would normally have to specify in detail what actions they are proposing. I find it hard to believe that if the airport had indeed specified what their intentions were prior to issuing their letter regarding the imminent closure of the airport, the FAA had not been clear in articulating the potential consequences of their actions.

    Obviously there is much that is not known but I personally think this particular example is an instance where saying where the FAA was “nastier than normal” is a bit of a stretch….

    • I agree. The author is basically saying that since East Hampton had met its legal obligations to forgo further FAA governance by reaching the end of grant requirements the FAA is now picking on them and being “nasty” by trying to control them with threats of withdrawing navaids and forcing new administrative requirements. The author seems to pass right over the issue of FAA governmental (public) funding and support for an airport that intends to limit public use and access. You can’t have both and the FAA isn’t being nasty by telling the airport authority just that.

  11. Taking it easy on Sunday, I watched nearly four hours of House sub-committee on Aviation hearings on cspan on the 5G issue. Administrator Dickson was being grilled during part of it. What I got out of it was a totally dysfunctional bureaucratic entity with weak leadership and an ill defined ability to take a hard stance on the subject. Similarly, all manner of alphabet soup groups testified and each was pointing the finger the other way. One thing I DID get out of it is that those AMOc’s are causing lots of issues and are not a panacea.

    • Have they grilled the FCC yet, since that’s the agency that started the 5G mess when they sold those frequencies in the first place when the should have known better. In that sense, it’s understandable that the FAA may be getting nastier toward other government entities, because the FAA often ends up stuck holding the bag of someone else’s mess.

      • A gal representing the telecommunications industry assn. essentially said just that … that the auctions were held, the entities paid and they’re being “nice” by holding up full implementation for a bit to help FAA. The FCC did not appear. Capt. Joe DePete — Pres of ALPA — testified that the AMOC’s are causing a real problem for airlines, pilots and dispatchers. Now, they have to know what equipment is installed on each airplane in order to comply with the AD’s and NOTAMs.

        Part of the problem is that the radar altimeters were designed at a time when there was no adjacent band problem but now there is. They’re already talking about 6G and beyond, even. As an old time “ham,” I wonder why a specific bandpass notch filter could not be installed? As usual, race entered the equation. An Illinois politician said that if they turned the power down around Midway airport, et al, loads of poor ethnic folks would be denied access to the benefits of 5G (sic). It was revealed that in Europe, the 5G tower signals aren’t being aimed above the horizon but in the US, they are. The whole thing was a bewildering three-ring circus of mutually exclusive entities trying to deflect blame. To ME, it seemed like the Aviation sub-committee wasn’t doing anything to act in a leadership role over the bureaucratic FAA and FCC entities. It was nothing but a sham-show, it seemed.

        To me, the whole thing was a VERY clear example of the dysfunction of our Government and it’s dueling bureaucracies with parochial mandates. Were I somehow magically find myself the President, I’d have it dealt with within days …
        I came away from hours of listening feeling like … who’s on first, what’s on second and why isn’t there anyone on third to grab the bull by the horns and rectify thing?

        • Now that I think about it after I pressed ‘send’ above, I came away from the “Meet the Administrator” meeting at Airventure 2021 also feeling the same way … violated by bureaucratic malaise over the LODA thing.

          WHY do we need a FAA if all they’re going to do is take years to do tasks that seem like ought to be dealt with in weeks? As I’ve often said in this forum, the FAA … making simple stuff hard since 1958! You’d think an airline guy — Dickson — would be working harder to help his bubbas … sigh. We wanted a fix or at least a plan and all we got was ORAL GRATIFICATION!

          • Easy. I’d call the Heads of FAA and FCC and members of the aviation sub-committee into my office, admonish them all and then ask each some hard questions (that should already have been asked and dealt with).

            For God’s sake, in the 60’s, Kennedy ordered a manned mission to the moon in less than a decade and ‘they’ pulled it off. We fought a major war in the 40’s in less than four years. THis isn’t THAT hard.

            For the FAA, I’d say, you knew for years this was going to be a problem with the RA’s but you didn’t order updated specs via RTCA with a date certain to change ’em out to compatible equipment. With implementation of ADS-B, you gave everyone 10 years to equip and a date certain. On this, you wasted a decade … why? To the FCC, I’d ask why — knowing that the various technical issues were going to be incompatible with aviation activities yet you auctioned off the spectrum anyways. why? I’m giving both of you one week (of the two the telecoms said they’d hold off) to provide me with a roadmap to make both work or I will issue an EO shutting down implementation of 5G until such time as the needs of both organizations can be satisfied. Safety of life and limb transcends “faster TikTok videos for teenage girls” (see below). And to the Congress folks who hold hours and hours of hearings and yet still do nothing I’d tell them to start doing something vs. talking about it all.

            After one week, if the correct answers didn’t come back, I’d shut down 5G by EO for reasons of life and limb. If you asked ME to set blame, I’d say FCC was 80% at fault, FAA and Congress were each ~10% at fault.

            I’m certain you’ll now tell me I’m all wet.

  12. I get it, we all love to hate the FAA. (I agree – In Dec. I wanted 10 min. for someone at IAD to validate my docs and they just never returned my calls. All my visits to BWI seem like a trip to Rikers, and I will see those EA-39 guys in hel.)
    But this is a bunch of antidotes that are not really connected.

    737Max – For the past 40 years Part 25 certification is largely self-certified or signed off by “independent” DERs etc. that the manuf. pays. The FAA certification branch reviews submissions, but if the manuf. blatantly lies (which is clearly the case from docs in the indictment), there’s not much FAA can do with perjury. This system reflects a larger public policy decision, and it’s the same one faced by other agencies like FDA -we assume that industry is just as, or more concerned with safety than regulators are. If everyone acts in good faith, this regulation framework actually works very effectively. Other than maybe USDA, if you work for the fed. gov’t you soon realize that there is not actually anyone there who does the monitoring role that the public thinks they do since we as a nation have decided long ago not to have keep the necessary expertise within any agency to police our assigned industry. That’s not the FAA’s fault that Congress decided they wouldn’t pay for this capacity and prefer to partner with industry towards a (usually) win-win.

    The town of E. Hampton filed FAA Form 7480 to DEACTIVATE an airport. That was their choice and they have enough money to read up on it’s implications. Read the FAA’s actual response (“East Hampton FAA Airport Letter” on Scribd). The letter is simple- when you deactivate an airport, all the dozens of approvals are terminated. How is this a shocker?? It further instructs if the town wants to apply to open a new, private airport at the same site later on, they’ll have to apply for it and go through well-defined processes which will be a lot of work. All the freebies a public airport gets, the town will now have to worry about. Also no brainers: The old grandfathered agreements were for public use only; Private airports cannot use publicly funded procedures; NY TRACON is not going to be your “bouncer” and keep track of your allowed guest list at your private clubhouse; all the many MOUs with NY TRACON for that busy airspace were only for public use and are invalid since you now have a private strip. Now the town has to start from scratch and get permission for their new, private airport under some very complex airspace. It won’t happen in a couple weeks. Who knew?
    Again, I don’t love FAA, but how are they the bad guy here? I am sure the Town talked with someone at AIP who agreed with the town that their Grants Assurance obligations were concluded, and it seem like then the town thought they were all set. Many cities do this every year, it’s not the end of the world. But these are two different issues: sunsetting grant obligations, and turning a Class D airport in busy airspace into a private strip, and these have two totally different sets of regs, laws, policies and FAA branches to deal with. It sounds like the town just heard what they wanted from Grants i.e. “we can do what we want with our own land”. Which they can. Good luck in their application process for a new airport – time for them to get to work. But I am not seeing anything where FAA ever told the town they can deactivate a public airport operating under dozens of grandfathered agreements and then open an new private airstrip with all the old public-use preferences and approvals two weeks later.

    FAA and industry have actively discussed potential C Band interference for at least 13 years. FAA sponsored studies made is clear that since RA’s have sat alone at 4.2GHz for 60 years, the TSO spec don’t require much freq. discrimination on their receive, and the freq. generators were never spec’d with any real lock and they drift quite a bit with 100+ deg. of heat cycle. Because of this, FAA and industry for years and years warned that even a well-guarded 3.9 signal may conflict with accuracy of many installed RAs. This is not new and it’s not fair to say FAA dropped the ball – no one wanted to hear. The FAA does not control management of the RF spectrum. It was FCC’s decision to auction the 3.9 spectrum a year ago based on industry influence and a pro-business climate for “leadership in innovation” (i.e. faster TikTok videos for teenage girls). The FAA again raised concerns prior to the sales. When the specifics of licensees ATT/VZ’s implementation recently came to light, FAA compared the US carriers’ 5G deployment plans vs. other telecoms’ installs near airfields worldwide that used lower power and more directional antenna, and FAA again reviewed data from industry and determined the potential for RA unreliability and issued NOTAMS as safety measures. What did you want them to do that they did not do?

    Again, I’m not any fan of FAA but for each of these, these are symptoms of larger public policy decisions made by the White House and Congress. The FAA just does what they are empowered to do. Yeah they are sometimes petty bureaucrats on a power trip, but to some extent they are just playing the hand we dealt them in our system of government.

    • But can the town really “do what they want with their own land”, given its provenance and provisos? FAA is not so sure:
      “FAA pointed out that the issue of whether the Federal exclusive rights, revenue use, and civil rights obligations are extinguished by closing the airport and opening a new airport using the same location and same facilities is unsettled. The Town indicated that it understood the risks and wanted to proceed. In prior meetings, we offered the Town the opportunity to share the details of its legal theory with us as we consider this issue, for instance, providing statutory or case law support, but to date, you have not elected to do so.”

      • Have a look at the Town’s collection of docs: (ehamptonny dot gov slash 748 slash Documents-and-Presentations).
        On that issue, the Town is saying that the FAA previously said that if they go private, then those obligations are completely ended. FAA’s letter to Town on 11/6/2020 says: “Option 2 considers that the federal grant assurances will expire after September 26, 2021 at which time the federal obligation to keep the airport open expires. The Town can close the airport, use the remaining funds in the airport account as it desires, dispose of the land, or not. The remaining FAA obligations, such as Exclusive Rights, Revenue Use, Civil Rights, are ***extinguished** upon closure. The Town of East Hampton can then choose to change the use of the airport from public to private use.”

        So the conflict is why was this “seemed” settled in Nov. 2020 but then in Jan. 2022 the FAA Regional Admin is saying that that based on the details they learned in recent meetings on the Town’s plan for privatization, obligations are still potentially in play. FAA says the Nov. 2020 was summarizing high-level options and they were waiting on the Town’s specific plan which took forever to get. There/are ongoing meetings, and as FAA saw details of the Town’s plan they raised concerns, and these FAA memos just summarize the discussions but are not FAA policy statements or a “green light”. The Town is saying they read the Nov. 20202 letter as a decision memo and since they already got the green light that their obligations are concluded and proceeded accordingly.

        I’d recommend anyone interested in this whole drama to read through some of the docs commissioned by the Town’s “expert” consultant Cooley LLC at the above. This firm appears to have a million areas of “expertise”, but what they list for Aviation is unimpressive, and the two people under Aviation “Special Counsel” don’t seem to have much related to aviation in their CVs or practice.
        So it seems like a strange choice of an “expert” if the goal is really re-open the airport to address neighbor’s noise complaints. All of the docs seem to demonstrate very little aviation expertise and are basically just talking points for eventually closing the evil, noisy, polluting airport (I mean they even have before/after pics of Meigs)

        Most importantly, a law firm that has ANY expertise dealing with gov’t regulators would be sure to get very clear written statements of acceptance/rejection of their plans, understandings, meeting minutes, etc. That’s what thousands of 202 layers spend their life on. I am on the .gov side of the desk and everything out of my mouth begins/ends with caveats to weasel and make it clear when I am giving non-committal feedback and when I am communicating policy. If I am communicating policy, I run it by General Counsel and every thought is recorded so their is zero ambiguity. It’s my industry partners counsels’ job to write me an email or other written record to say “Just to confirm, we agree that…” or “It it the government’s position that…” and pin me down to make sure they’re getting a real Y/N answer when one is critical.
        So IMO this fiasco really reflects not poorly on the Town who just heard what they wanted to hear, or the FAA who does what we do and is not giving any policy decisions in the memos we’ve seen, but completely on Cooley LLC for failing to represent their client’s interests and do what even a GS-9 knows is the process to conduct govt/stakeholder interactions.

  13. Is the town just playing games? They close the airport, reopen it as a private field, and the Feds cannot take the land back because it’s still “an airport” even though it’s off limits to most everyone?

    Then when they can, they get a Congressman to put in some big bill that the feds cannot buy it back. It’s a long game, but they close the airport which the Feds might reopen if they take it back.

    • That’s my theory, that the town had every intention of closing the airport and redeveloping it. They’re just trying to do it in a way that makes it look like they aren’t pulling a Meigs.

      • Well, hopefully the jet set uses their power to keep it open. We gotta stop losing airports that are near where people actually want to go.

  14. Since the FAA is telling the NTSB to but out of space vehicle investigations by claiming jurisdiction, would be nice if they did the same jurisdiction argument against the EPA and TSA.