The FAA Administrator has a VERY difficult job; he, with 13 direct reports, manages over 35,000 employees who are deployed throughout the US and internationally. The business plan for Flight Safety alone runs fifteen single-space, 12 point type. The agency’s primary mission is aviation safety, but the totality of his responsibilities is suggested by the following:
- its largest work force is devoted to air traffic (a very contentious set of employees),
- its biggest challenge is the complete revision of the ATC navigation, computing, and communications system (a huge headache acquisition),
- it is responsible for collateral duties like regulating space and drones (both of which are extremely demanding),
- it provides safety and economic regulation for the nation’s airports (yes, it has powers over the business aspects of these utilities, unlike the FAA’s authority over airlines),
- it has major budgets to research aviation safety, aircraft noise, alternative fuels, ATC modernization and other more arcane subjects,
- it is responsible for the regulation of hazardous materials on aircraft and security, plus
- it has its own internal set of the ordinary corporate functions—personnel, administration, finance, policy, PR, acquisitions, lobbying and law.
This long litany is intended to put into context the next comment. Administrator Huerta’s review of 2015 is myopic in its view of his organization. One can easily attribute his focus on NextGen and UASs to the breadth of his work, but there are +s and –s missing from a full recounting of this last twelve months.
Here is a short list of highlights and lowlights (there are lots more, for sure; OMISSIONS — READERS, PLEASE ADD IN THE COMMENT BOX BELOW! [NOTE- the order of the below observations is not prioritized]:
- Safety and SMS—Over the last twelve months the Administrator and Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Gilligan have done a masterful job of implementing SMS. Though there was opposition from both the carriers and the FAA staff, it is working in its intended preventative impact. The numbers are not yet final, but the expectations are quite positive. Equally exceptional was the delicate implementation of the parallel Compliance Philosophy which assures the cooperation/collaboration essential to SMS. Under the radar changes to the Chief Counsel’s delegation of authority and an unannounced change in the field ASI assignments are major structural changes which avoid the opposition of the field to SMS. The numbers from the 2015 safety track record will quantitatively support this qualitative assessment.
- NextGen—As he noted in his FastLane column, there have been significant milestones attained, but there are mixed reactions to ADS-B and a lack of consensus as to the funding of this massive ATC project. In particular, there is an absence of a proof of the value of some of the NextGen projects.
- Drones—The Administrator noted the implementation of the UAS rules (NPRM on Part 107 and IFR of Part 48), but he did not mention the FAA challenges, even assuming that those two rules become finally effective (pending the actual and threatened litigation). With a potential fleet of 1 million aircraft, a geographical dispersion of infinite locations and a drone nation largely composed of pilots who are unfamiliar with a compliance culture, the safety task of the FAA is challenging and possibly unattainable. Most saliently, this emerging, innovative industry does not fit the FAA’s historic legal parameters, standard seines for regulating or staffing model. In 2015, it became clear that the effective governmental relationship with drones requires consideration of a sea change.
- Regulatory Process—The frustration of industry, safety advocates and Congress with the slowness of the FAA’s ability to issue new regulations was evident. For example, the Hill held several hearings on the tepid pace of issuance during the last year. Clearly for the Administrator, for example, his inability to force the final promulgation of Part 23 was a lowlight of 2015.
- Oversight and Incursion—2015 was a year of many Hill oversight hearings; each of them consumes a great deal of the senior staff’s time. The number of OIG audits and GAO studies seemed inordinate. All of these organizations have the right and the duty to examine the FAA’s performance, but the collective impact of all of this scrutiny is to distract staff from their ordinary assignments and likely delay the work which they otherwise would have completed. Again, it is clearly a function of Congress to set statutory guidelines, but if their intercessions insert a pet issue of a Member or Members into the FAA projects, it creates a zero sum proposition. Addition of some new regulatory project, by definition, results in the subtraction of the resources available for the pre-existing workload. A lesson of 2015 should be that all of the overseers need to consider the impact of their intrusion into the daily routine of the FAA.
- Environment and NextGen—A big surprise to the FAA in 2015 has been the pushback of communities to the implementation of NextGen’s new flight paths and procedures. It was expected that the new capabilities of the system would translate to environmental benefits, but the precision of RNP turned out to create issues under these narrower AT corridors. Congress offered statutory changes and will debate them in 2016. Some solutions need to be defined which will retain NextGen’s benefits and respond to the pockets of impact.
In summary, the FAA is probably glad that 2015 is over. As with every year since 1958, there have been good and bad moments, but the organization faces the next twelve months with energy and enthusiasm. Expectations for this year of FAA Reauthorization, Presidential politics and the normal safety challenges are uncertain, but Mr. Huerta’s team is ready.