STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's go now to another form of transportation, the airlines, which we're examining this week. Today we will hear about the agency that's responsible for every take-off and landing in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration has some 49,000 employees, and more than a few are disgruntled air traffic controllers who work on outmoded equipment. President Obama has nominated a new person to run the FAA. He's Randy Babbitt, a former pilot for now-defunct Eastern Airlines, a former head of the pilot's union, and more recently an aviation consultant. For our series Troubled Skies, NPR's Brian Naylor looks at the most pressing issues he faces.
BRIAN NAYLOR: For five years, Marion Blakey led the FAA. A veteran of several high profile jobs in Republican administrations dating back to Reagan, Blakey says the FAA was different.
Ms. MARION BLAKEY (Former FAA Administrator): It's an operational agency unlike a lot of the federal government, which may be regulatory or policy, but you're running something.
NAYLOR: At the FAA, what you're running is the nation's airspace. Fifty thousand or so flights a day go through the airspace controlled by the FAA.
Unidentified Man #1 (Air Traffic Controller): (Unintelligible) 2100 Washington Tower on my 1-5 position and hold, traffic departing Runway 1-9…
NAYLOR: This is the control tower at Washington's Reagan National Airport. At any given time, about half a dozen air traffic controllers work in the tower, guiding planes down the tricky approach to National's relatively short runways and dealing with dozens of helicopters flying dignitaries around the capital.
Unidentified Man #2 (Air Traffic Controller): Cactus 1259, Washington ground, Spot 5, everybody a go…
NAYLOR: Here in this tower, as in dozens of similar facilities around the country, are the two biggest challenges the new FAA administrator faces - the controllers themselves and the technology they use.
Representative JERRY COSTELLO (Democrat, Illinois): Morale is probably at its lowest point since the PATCO strike, when Ronald Reagan fired all of the controllers.
NAYLOR: That's Democratic Congressman Jerry Costello of Illinois. Costello chairs the House Subcommittee on Aviation. After President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, the newly hired replacements formed their own union, NATCA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Since 2006, they have been working under rules imposed on them by the FAA, and 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. Forrey says this has led to an exodus of senior controllers.
Mr. PATRICK FORREY (National Air Traffic Controllers Association): All those quality-of-life issues have really added more stress to an already stressful job, and it's something - one of the reasons why many of these experienced controllers are leaving. They don't want to deal with it anymore, and they don't want to be responsible for killing somebody.
NAYLOR: 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.
He points to Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller who helped guide the US Airways flight that landed in New York's Hudson last January.
Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): 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. And those are the kind of people we want. These people should be well compensated.
NAYLOR: After getting a labor agreement with the controllers, LaHood says the number two priority at FAA is updating the equipment the controllers work with.
Sec. LAHOOD: It's outdated. It's like maybe having a computer, you know, going back to the beginning of when Bill Gates developed software and computers.
NAYLOR: 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. Castelveter says pilots would navigate with help from landmarks like rivers, and at night bonfires.
Mr. DAVID CASTELVESTER (Air Transport Association): They would fly at night from one bonfire to the next. Over the course of time they built radar beacon — radar towers — on the sites of those bonfires, and to this very day airplanes fly from beacon to beacon.
NAYLOR: What the airline industry, Secretary LaHood, and much of Congress want to see is a long-planned and long-delayed switch from ground-based radar to satellite-based GPS navigation. It's known as NextGeneration, or NextGen. NextGen would enable airlines to fly more aircraft, fly them closer together, and — theoretically at least — reduce flight delays.
Congressman Costello has been pushing the FAA to get moving on NextGen.
Rep. COSTELLO: It's one thing to say that NextGen is a priority and we need to get it done. And 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. And it wasn't a priority for the past administration, and I think that's very clear.
NAYLOR: But Transportation Secretary 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 paying for it. It's expected cost the government $20 billion, and $20 billion more for the 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.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Our series on Troubled Skies continues tomorrow when we look at business aviation.