FAA Culture Resistant to Change
Overcoming Internal Institutional Inertia
Aviation Subcommittee Chair Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) set the parameters of the July 17 hearing inquiring into the progress, or lack thereof, of NextGen with the following comments in his initial statement:
“I also know that there are serious concerns regarding the FAA’s ability to effectively and efficiently implement NextGen. I’ve heard that some ‘transformational’ NextGen programs aren’t truly transformational, that the FAA will never make the tough decisions required to advance NextGen, and that nobody can really agree what NextGen is today or what it should be in 2025.”
“I also want to make clear that I’m not pointing the finger at any specific person for perceived or actual problems with NextGen, in particular Administrator Huerta. The NextGen program is a decade old and there are a lot of people that share the responsibility for any problems, including people within the FAA, the aviation industry, and Congress.”
The Administrator made a five minute opening statement which highlighted the successes that NextGen has achieved and is recording. He stressed the value of collaboration, but did not affirmatively address any of the problems which the FAA is encountering. Mr. Huerta answered questions from the Members of the Subcommittee in attendance.
The US Department of Transportation’s Inspector General has a long history of criticism of the FAA’s management of NextGen. Mr. Calvin Scovel’s prepared statement repeats a number of significant technical and management concerns (Metroplex, ADS-B, ERAM, need for an integrated planning document), but his report pointed to a factor heretofore unheard or ignored:
“FAA’s highly operational, tactical, and safety-oriented culture can lead to a risk-averse outlook that is slow to embrace change, resulting in an organization that prioritizes day-to-day operations over more strategic and policy-driven change over time. Moreover, as we have previously reported in 2010, FAA’s culture is reluctant to embrace outside technologies and has historically not leveraged the work of other departments such as the U.S. Department of Defense’s research and development related to surveillance and security of aircraft.
Organizational instability and inconsistent leadership have also undermined FAA’s efforts to establish a culture that could effectively advance NextGen.”
In his oral testimony, he used terms such as a lack of buy-in and organizational instability. If the people who have the responsibility of implementing NextGen do not believe in it and do not share the vision of a future Air Traffic Management, as opposed to Control, THEN no leadership from the FAA Administrator can overcome such institutional inertia against change.
The Administrator commented on this IG characterization of a culture resistant to change by admitting, in part, that as a safety agency, the FAA generally favors old procedures that worked and those employees are not quick to accept new procedures. He asserted that they are working to improve internal attitudes.
The subject matter stimulated a number of questions from the Members. The evidence of such attitudes is secondary and subjective in nature; so it will be difficult to prove absolutely that it exists. Users of Air Traffic services and taxpayers, who are being asked to finance NextGen, will want to see how Deputy Administrator Whitaker, now the single person responsible for NextGen, is able to change this alleged attitude.
Since “culture” is hard to measure, perhaps the best proof of NextGen progress is the rolling out of success in implementing major programs.