Next FAA Chief Will Face Turbulent Climate

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President Obama has nominated Randy Babbitt to head the Federal Aviation Administration. If confirmed by the Senate, Babbitt would be taking on an agency of some 49,000 employees, many of them disgruntled air traffic controllers who work on outmoded equipment.

Those controllers, and the technology they use, are the two biggest challenges facing a new FAA administrator.

"Morale is probably at its lowest point since the [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] strike, when Ronald Reagan fired all of the controllers," says Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Aviation.

After President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, the newly hired replacements formed their own union, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Since 2006, NATCA's members have been working under rules imposed on them by the FAA, and they are none too happy about it.

NATCA's president, Patrick Forrey, says the rules made it harder to schedule time off and froze controllers' pay. This has led to an exodus of senior controllers, he says.

"All those quality-of-life issues have really added more stress to an already stressful job, and it's one of the reasons why many of these experienced controllers are leaving," Forrey says. "They don't want to deal with it anymore, and they don't want to be responsible for killing somebody."

The most senior controllers can earn nearly $200,000, according to the FAA. The union maintains the average controller salary is less, around $99,000. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says getting the controllers a new contract with better work rules and a raise will be the top priority of the new FAA administrator.

LaHood points to Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller who helped guide the US Airways flight that landed in New York's Hudson River in January.

"He carried out his responsibilities in a very professional way and didn't panic, didn't get nervous. He did what he was trained to do," LaHood says. "Those are the kind of people we want. ... These people should be well compensated."

After getting a labor agreement with the controllers, LaHood says, the second priority at FAA is updating the equipment the controllers work with.

"It's outdated. It's like maybe having a computer going back to the beginning of when Bill Gates developed software and computers," LaHood.

The nation's aircraft are guided by ground-based radar. David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association, the airlines' lobbying group, says the system dates back to the pioneer days of aviation, when pilots would navigate with help from landmarks like rivers and, at night, bonfires.

"They would fly at night from one bonfire to the next. Over the course of time they built radar beacons — radar towers — on the sites of those bonfires and to this very day airplanes fly from beacon to beacon," Castelveter says.

The long-planned and long-delayed switch from ground-based radar to satellite-based navigation is known as NextGen. NextGen would enable airlines to fly more aircraft, fly them closer together and — theoretically at least — reduce flight delays.

Rep. Costello has been pushing the FAA to move forward with NextGen.

"It's one thing to say that NextGen is a priority and we need to get it done. It's another thing to put someone in charge that has direction from the White House and the authority from the White House to move the project forward. It wasn't a priority for the past administration, I think that's very clear," Costello says.

LaHood says NextGen is a priority of this administration. The stumbling block has been coming up with a plan to phase in the complex technology and to pay for it. The switch is expected to cost the government $20 billion, and $20 billion more for the airline industry.

LaHood says if the new administrator can get NextGen up and running and reach a labor agreement with controllers, he will have accomplished a great deal. That may be an understatement.

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