Washington is a City of Perspectives; Understanding Others’ Safety Mandates is Critical to Effective Government

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ARTICLE: Defying Gravity, Safely and Surely


The Chair of the NTSB gave a speech at the Wings Club and was interviewed by Condé Nast. Her statements reflect her experiences as a Senate staffer and then as the head of an independent board which investigates and does not implement. Oddly enough, her critical comments are made at a time when aviation safety has reached its best performance in decades.

Her NTSB has done an excellent job of calling out the FAA’s deficiencies. The Board’s Most Wanted List has helped the FAA focus on areas in which it can improve.

What the omniscience of the NTSB Chair fails to acknowledge is that the FAA Administrator faces challenges:

  • His staffing is being decreased; the people who are available to respond to the list as well as an extremely long agenda of other issues;
  • His agenda is being heavily influenced by priorities set by Congress and sometimes those legislative deadlines interfere;
  • The task of defining a problem is hard; the job of defining rules and methods that address that problem is harder; the most difficult assignment is writing those rules in a way which can be followed by the regulated, can be enforced by the regulator and can be approved by OST and OMB;
  • The Administrator is responsible for running a business every hour of every day of the year. Aviation safety is #1 on his list of “To Do’s,” but his in-box includes a lot of other significant critical tasks;
  • The FAA is not independent; the Administrator reports to the Secretary, who is part of the Cabinet. That’s a reality.

It is clear to anyone with perspective that the FAA does not ignore what the NTSB says. Experienced officials recognize the limitations of those about whom you are critical and temper their critique with understanding the FAA’s realities. It would be inappropriate to hint that, for example, the NTSB has issued findings of probable cause that were wrong; because such an attack would ignore the pressures and constraints under which the Board works.

Washington is a unique capital due to its Heights Act; no buildings obscure the views of the White House, the Capitol and many of the city’s icons. What that unique set of vistas allows is perspective. The policy makers inside the Beltway can and should look out of their offices, literally and most appropriately figuratively, to see the positions of others in Washington.

The view from the NTSB’s offices may not offer a direct line to the FAA or the Department of Transportation, but the absence of literal perspective should not limit the understanding of the vista of 800 Independence Avenue. If the NTSB can picture that mental vision, that view may help it figuratively “occupy” the seat of the Administrator of the Secretary as they attempt to meet their respective agendas. Criticism is more powerful if the critic understands the capabilities of the criticized. Unrealistic commentary can be and frequently is diminished in its power.

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