Aging Controllers, Lax Rules Trouble FAA

FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell

hide captionFAA Administrator Robert Sturgell gestures during a news conference on July 14, 2008, where he announced runway safety improvements.

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One of the federal agencies that will need President-elect Barack Obama's attention will be the Federal Aviation Administration.

During the Bush administration, some FAA inspectors and air traffic controllers blew the whistle on their agency. In congressional hearings, there were accusations that the FAA had "cozied up" to the airlines they are tasked with regulating, and FAA administrators were blamed for covering up the actual rate of commercial aircraft near misses.

By any measure, it was a rough year for FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell. Being dragged before a congressional committee to defend your own and your agency's integrity and competence has to be pretty high up on anyone's list of activities to try to avoid in the New Year.

"Sen. Bond, I just want to be very clear — I'm not making any excuses for what happened on behalf of the FAA — it was not appropriate. We're going to take action, and we're going to fix it," Sturgell said in response to accusations made by his own inspectors in Dallas that the FAA had gotten too cozy with Southwest Airlines and that FAA supervisors had, in essence, allowed Southwest executives to remove FAA inspectors who were simply trying to enforce the required inspections properly.

The whistle-blowers said it was emblematic of the way the FAA had started doing business during the Bush administration.

"The problem was instead of being the overseer, the FAA considered airlines their customer," says Congressman Jim Oberstar, who heads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that held the hearings and put the FAA through the wringer. "If there is a customer — and I don't think there is — but if there is a customer for the FAA, it is the air traveling public [and] not the airlines; not the corporate interest but the public interest."

Sturgell disagrees and says that in an industry as technically complex as aviation, the federal government and the airlines must be in a cooperative relationship — not one of cop versus bad guy.

But the coziness allegation is just one FAA issue among several, equally pressing issues that the new administration must cope with. Another is what to do about the capacity limitations in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and New York City. Sturgell says delays in and out of New York spread through the air traffic control system like a contagion.

"You can pull up Life magazine from 1968 and see New York LaGuardia on the cover," Sturgell says. "The same issues have been facing that airport for many, many years."

The Bush administration wanted to try a little capitalism — make the airlines pay higher fees for prime-time departure and arrival slots — but the airlines hated that proposal. Most domestic carriers are staggering along, while many foreign carriers are in far better shape and could afford the higher fees more easily.

Sturgell knows this approach will most likely be completely scrapped by the new administration and Congress.

"What we ended up doing was restricting the number of operations to what the airport could actually handle. That has cut delays substantially," Sturgell says.

That has helped, but the capacity problems in New York and elsewhere will pose a major challenge. There's also the aging controller issue: In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers when they went on strike. After that, a new batch of controllers was hired, mostly ones in their early 30s, all of whom will be forced to retire soon at the mandatory age of 57.

Adrian Scofield, a senior editor at Aviation Week, says the FAA hasn't been preparing for this.

"They probably are behind the eight ball. It's happening a bit late," he says. "We're sort of approaching the peak of the bubble now, I think, when there's going to be a lot of veterans leaving."

Instead of a gradual transition, steely-nerved air traffic controllers with decades of experience are going to be replaced en masse with rookies who face tough negotiations with the FAA over contracts.

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