Administrator Halaby’s Solution for DOT/FAA?
The observation that “Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s plans for a revolutionary aviation shakeup have been put on the shelf” was a catalyst for reexamining the FAA, its functions and purpose.
First, Chairman Shuster must be lauded for his effort to transform the structure of this federal organization which performs so many aviation safety services. His focus was solely on the Air Traffic Control system and the languid pace of NextGen; the bill which he authored proposed to detach the ATC from the parent FAA. The solution kept the remainder of 800 Independence Ave. in the Executive Branch.
Though AIRR had tremendous support from A4A, NATCA and many aviation experts, it encountered opposition from both sides of the aisle as well as both ends of the political philosophical spectrum. The Shuster vision does not appear likely to be enacted during the 114th Session of Congress.
History is a useful tool to examine the roots of an institution and whether/how it might be reformed. In 1965, then Administrator Halaby, an exceptional administrator, wrote to the President about his frustrations in getting Congress to enact legislation needed by the then Federal Aviation Agency.
His analysis was that the FAA should be part of a Cabinet level Department. He wrote: “I guess I was a rarity – an independent agency head proposing to become less independent.” President Johnson endorsed the idea, submitted a proposal to Congress and signed the bill into law on October 15, 1966 which created the Department of Transportation.
Fifty years later, the FAA is faced with a similar challenge—to implement NextGen, much like Halaby’s difficulty getting his legislative priorities enacted and implemented. It is clear that neither the Administration nor the Secretary have adopted as a major priority this transformation of the ATC from ground-based to a more efficient satellite system. The Halaby-Johnson elevation of the FAA does not seem to be very effective today in getting NextGen fully funded nor implemented.
The Shuster solution would be to move the ATC into a federally chartered organization and removing the FAA from Congressional control/funding. This pause of FAA Reauthorization has created a moment to reflect—
- Is a safety service agency really appropriately part of the Administration?
- Stated in academic, analytical terms, does its mission benefit from inclusion in a political wing of the Executive Branch?
By reviewing the major missions of the FAA to determine whether the work performed is political or technical, an answer to the above inquiry may result.
Policy direction is expected to be part of what the White House and the Cabinet do. By virtue of an election POTUS has the constitutional power to establish directions which each Secretary is supposed to implement within her/his Department. The Executive Branch is also limited by the Congressional authorizations, but to the extent that the legislation and the 1600 Pennsylvania guidance are congruent, there are no problems.
There are independent federal regulatory agencies that do not report to the President. Typically, the heads of these organizations do not serve at the “pleasure of the President.” Also they are characterized by highly technical subject matter jurisdiction and really get their policy limits from Congress. Here are a few representative examples:
In the broadest assessment of what the FAA does, its decisions are much like Underwriters Laboratories or Good Housekeeping, their seals are “certificates” that the products tested are good/safe. Whether it is an aircraft, an airline, a pilot, an airport or whatever, the FAA uses its technical expertise to determine that the engineering is right, the skills meet standards or the airport is well designed; it then typically issues a certificate.
Given the objective and technical nature of this macro mission, political guidance does not appear to contribute much and holds the potential to be a negative (as suggested by the FAA’s own IASA audit criteria).
As the subsidiary agency to the holding company US Department of Transportation, the FAA receives its policy from the Secretary. It and other DOT modal administrations are subject to instructions on positions from S-1, his Deputy, the General Counsel and a whole host of Assistant Secretary. All too frequently policy experts at the White House and/or from the OMB staff will hint that, maybe even subtly instruct that, XYZ airline should not be blocked. The organization theory is that this top—down flow should be matched by the White House/OMB/DOT exercising their political clout on Capitol Hill. Note: that’s the theory.
Now on a major line-of-business basis, is the FAA more a technical than executive agency?
1. Air Traffic—The ATC is a safety and service provider. Its elements separate and guide traffic through the National Air Transportation system 24 hours/ 365 days a year; it’s an operational organization. Its technicians design and manage all flights which move through the US airspace.
The AT staff are present at towers, TRACONs and centers throughout the country. Managers set and implement all of the hiring, training, staffing and promotion of the controllers. Its responsibilities include the maintenance of the equipment. Perhaps its most engineering heavy task is the research, design, procurement and implementation of the supporting hardware. Its plan for the future is known as NextGen.
While the ATC has drawn considerable scrutiny about its management of the ATC and its acquisition performance for NextGen, the FAA does not appear to have benefitted much from its placement within the DOT; for the funding for and long term authorization of NextGen are badly stalled on the Hill.
The GAO, the Congress and industry have been strong and active critics of its efforts. Consequently, one can argue that the FAA ATC does not lack for oversight. DOT is not indispensable to assure that the FAA is without guidance.
The FAA ATC organization would appear to qualify as an independent safety regulatory agency.
2. Aviation Safety is the 2nd largest FAA function and its work is equally visible to the public. Its mission is highly technical in nature. It is populated with trained experts in aeronautical engineer, maintenance, operations, flight skills and a long list of associated skills. Its judgments are based on hard numbers and exercise of discretion is not the matter of politics.
This cadre is located throughout the US and the globe. Based on analysis of applicants’ competence, it issues Type Certificates, Production Certificates, Air Carrier Certificates, Air Agency Certificates, Pilot Licenses and a long list of other documents which are legal predicates to the applicant offering services to the public. It is their job to assess the safety of the applicants and that is not a matter for which political assistance is welcome. The work is inherently safety regulation (period).
3. Airports establishes safety standards for the aviation facilities, administers some related economic/social programs and it distributes AIP grants . The first task is technical (strength of runways, planning& design, etc.); the second involves the implementation of very specific criteria set by Congress on airports accepting grants; the last work program is basically that of an investment banker. The decisions of what projects merit federal “investment” should be made have been carefully reviewed by Congress.
The priorities for use of the AIP funds might be susceptible to political direction, but over time, the FAA’s decisions have been set by rigorous analytical standards. Not clear that it must be part of the Executive Branch.
4. International Affairs is the State Department of the FAA. I t maintains relations with countries around the globe with a shrinking number of overseas offices. It once “promoted” US aviation to the global aviation community and the Senate has passed a bill, which the House is considering, which may restore that authority. The Administrator has rejuvenated the foreign agenda with a Global Leadership Initiative (p.11). There are many other important tasks of this office, but its mission is the most congruent with Executive Branch policy implementation.
These observations are meant to stimulate discussion and debate.
- Is the current structure still right?
- Is the best solution to the NextGen problem is to create a federally chartered corporation. As the AIRR bill demonstrates, that structure creates a number of significant and detailed of the problems associated with refedining governance, funding, employee rights, etc.?
- Might it be time to revisit Administrator Halaby’s premise that placing the FAA within the DOT increase its ability to move its legislative agenda?
→ Within that question, there are two major subsidiary points
- Is the present DOT “holding company” corporate model effectively advocating the FAA’s needs, i.e. NextGen?
- Is the FAA’s true mission part of the Executive Branch or would it be better suited as an independent regulatory agency?
What’s your opinion? Please put your thoughts in the below comments section.