How About Some Real Leadership, Ms. Garvey?

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GUEST EDITORIAL. The new FAA Administrator is already assuring us that positive steps are being taken at the Agency and things are getting better. ut this only proves that she doesn't understand the problem. While public attention is focused on ValuJet and TWA 800, the largest division of the FAA — the Air Traffic Division — is about to self-destruct, while billions of taxpayer's dollars are being wasted in futile efforts to shore up the system. Money isn't going to fix what's broken at the FAA. What's needed is some real leadership. Wake up and smell the coffee, Madam Administrator!

NOTE: Following Capt. Baiada's editorial, we've published a reply by an air traffic controller.

FAA Administrator Jane GarveyAs I read Ms. Garvey's comments 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 the case.

The FAA was once a national treasure that was the model for aviation authorities worldwide, but is now a national embarrassment. Instead of improvement, the FAA simply shifts things around with little of substance actually being improved. FAA is always late off the mark and never seems to get it right. For the twenty years I have worked with the FAA, involved in various projects (mostly ATC-related), and as a Captain for a major airline, none of this surprises me any longer. What is surprising is that nothing is ever done about it.

The NTSB's recent probable cause report placed a fair amount of blame for the ValuJet accident on FAA's inaction to ValuJet's problems. But most do not realize that the FAA division responsible for the safety of our aviation system — the Flight Standards division — is the smaller of the FAA's two operating divisions. The FAA's other, much larger 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's Flight Standards division, FAA's ATC side of the house is in far worse shape. Equipment failures are routine. Air traffic controllers are overloaded and staffing levels are too low at many ATC facilities. Software is out-of-date and poorly documented. Hardware is embarrassingly antiquated.

FAA upgrade programs fail one after the other. New controller workstations (DSR and STARS), over $2 billion worth of new hardware, are less capable than the equipment they replace. 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 been wasted 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 system has already broken down more than once with deadly consequences. The crash of the USAir aircraft in Los Angeles a few years ago was a clear breakdown of the ATC system. The controller was distracted and the pilot did not see the commuter aircraft parked on the runway 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 FAAs hardware, software and process in the overloaded ATC system are very strong factors that led to the L.A. and Guam crashes. In both cases, the FAA failed to provide the controller with the necessary tools to handle the workload. With the right tools, ATC might well have prevented these accidents, but we will never know.

The FAA has never applied the same rigorous rules to their ATC system software that they apply to the aircraft flying in the system. For aircraft software, FAA's Flight Standards division is tasked to monitor and evaluate all software that is installed into every commercial aircraft as an independent third-party. In principal, Flight Standards has 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 system software. Although FAA will say that ATC software is fully evaluated, this check is done by people that have a vested interest in the software getting approved. Could better software 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 of maintaining the ATC system. Yet, while airline CEOs devote their energies on lobbying Congress 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 the crumbling ATC system, without any tangible progress.

A recent book by ex-DOT Inspector General Mary Schiavo argues that the problem with the FAA is that it is in the airlines' back pocket. I disagree. In my opinion, the FAA answers to 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 the FAA and refuse to "rock the boat."

FAA's ATC equipment problems can be easily fixed, but I am not sure the management and cultural issues can. I have heard from more than one person that the FAA is the most arrogant organization in Washington. This is not the atmosphere and culture upon which we should build our aviation safety net.

I'm not suggesting that the FAA be privatized, nor that they should be given more money. FAA cries pauper, but has squandered ten times the money it needs to fix its problems. 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 FAA finally has someone at the top, Ms. Garvey has a very short window of opportunity to exert the leadership necessary to solve FAA's problems. Although new to the job, the political correctness of Ms. Garvey's letter to USA Today shows that she is off in the wrong direction.

An Air Traffic Controller Replies...

Dear Captain Baiada,

ATC radarI read with great relief your opinions about the FAA ATC division. I can only say "Thank God" someone other than controllers and other FAA grunts see the FAA Air Traffic managers for what they are: arrogant and incompetent. For every honest manager in Air Traffic who actually tries to do a good job, there must be at least fifty who don't care about anything other than protecting their own job.

I am a 15-year veteran center controller at our nation’s busiest center: Cleveland. Employee morale is at an all time low, for many of the reasons you mentioned in your article plus other local and internal management problems. Many large facilities like Cleveland are the FAA’s dumping grounds for managers who have misbehaved in other facilities. They are sent to a place where they can disappear in the crowd — but inevitably the management style that got them in trouble in the first place resurfaces in their new facility.

I used to believe that controller burnout was a myth, but now I know it does exist. Yet the cause is not what is usually portrayed in the press: the "stress" of working traffic. That's the fun and easy part of the job. The real stress comes from dealing every day with incompetent, rigid and yes, stupid, managers and controllers who think pilots and airplanes 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 the incompetence and a non-service-oriented attitude slowly taking over.

I become eligible to retire in approximately five years. There isn't much I can imagine that 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 behavior and mismanagement rampant in the FAA Air Traffic Division. If you dare to speak up you become the target of many subtle means of harassment by management. That is why, although I 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 are naive and trusting of Big Brother. Someday, perhaps, the FAA will have to answer to someone.

I used to be proud of my job, but now I hate to even admit to people what I do for a living. I've been involved in aviation for nearly 26 years, as pilot, flight instructor and now controller. I know we still have the safest system in the world, but I am concerned about how long it will last.

The FAA has a serious problem with equipment, despite what their PR people say. I understand they are about to scrap a system designed for the approach controls (more millions 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. I understand that NATCA (the controller’s union) will not accept it in its present condition.

The FAA's incompetence with regard to equipment is only part of the problem. The Air Traffic System in the U.S. is operating today because of the dedication and often extra-human efforts of the people running it day to day: controllers and airway facility technicians. I know of no one who would intentionally put an aircraft in danger. But I do know of people who have become so demoralized by the FAA’s heavy-handed management approach that they no longer "go the extra mile" or put in the extra effort to help.


A Cleveland Center controller who does care