By MATTHEW L. WALD
May 8, 2008
WASHINGTON – With its more rigorous oversight of airplane maintenance having led to the recent grounding of thousands of flights, the Federal Aviation Administration is confronting long-term questions about whether it should act more like a tough regulator, rather than a partner, of the airlines.
But that is only one of many unresolved issues hanging over this agency. Others include: How should it rebuild its air traffic control system and its controller work force, both of which are aging and stressed? How should it set fees for airlines and others using the air traffic system? How should it ration scarce landing slots at New York area airports to prevent national gridlock?
And who should run the agency, which has had no permanent administrator since September?
“Whoever is the next president, the F.A.A. is going to be taken apart and put back together,” said Michael Goldfarb, a former chief of staff at the agency and now a consultant.
Joseph Del Balzo, who worked at the agency for 34 years, ending as acting administrator, said, “I think things are more unsettled there than I can ever remember.”
Congress is taking a stab at answers in a new authorization bill, which could set air traffic control charges for corporate jets, and require or prohibit auctions for landing slots. The last authorization bill expired in September; the House has passed one version but debate has bogged down in the Senate.
The acting administrator, Robert A. Sturgell, said in an interview on Tuesday that operating without long-term legislation would eventually interfere with acquisitions and hiring, but he said his agency was doing well with technology and people.
“This is not your grandfather’s F.A.A.,” he said, citing a new computer backbone for air traffic control that is now being installed, and improvements in tracking planes over the oceans.
Mr. Sturgell’s interim status is, in a sense, an example of a reform that backfired.
Agency administrators used to be appointed and confirmed at the pleasure of the president and the Senate, and served at most until a president’s term expired. But a consensus emerged among aviation experts that their tenure was typically too short to learn their jobs and have an impact, hampering modernization.
So in 1994 Congress established a five-year term. Jane F. Garvey, a Democrat appointed by Bill Clinton, served 18 months into the Bush administration, and her successor, Marion C. Blakey, a Republican, held the office for the full five years, ending last September.
President Bush nominated Ms. Blakey’s deputy, Mr. Sturgell, a former airline pilot with long experience in aviation safety and a Republican, to succeed her. But the Senate is controlled by Democrats, many of whom expect to see a Democratic president elected later this year, and they have moved slowly.
His confirmation is now unlikely because of political objections to changes made to smooth out air control. The agency has been trying to cut delays by untangling the knot of airspace in the New York metropolitan area. When it tried a simpler design, some towns heard airplane noise for the first time and many residents complained to their elected representatives. So both New Jersey senators have suspended action on Mr. Sturgell’s nomination.
“Everybody says we need to improve the air traffic control system, reduce the delays and increase capacity,” said Mr. Del Balzo. “And the F.A.A. tries to do that, and that’s the reaction you get.”
The Democrats assert, however, that Mr. Sturgell, as understudy to Ms. Blakey, was simply part of a failed leadership.
The agency has limited the number of flights at Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty airports in the New York area to ease the national gridlock that quickly results when delays occur there.
It is trying to auction landing slots at La Guardia. But Congress is debating a provision in the authorization bill that would prohibit the agency from doing that. That bill has been held up for months in a dispute over how the expense of running the air traffic system should be divided among airlines and other users, like corporate jets.
The agency’s authorization – its basic approval to operate – expired Oct. 1 and has been temporarily extended since then. It contains a range of other bread-and-butter provisions, including how airlines should have to calculate their pension liabilities and how the agency should regulate aircraft repair stations overseas. Unions are pressing to make it harder for airlines to export maintenance work.
Meanwhile, the agency continues to struggle with modernizing its air traffic system.
For more than a decade, the agency has talked about moving to a system of satellite navigation, in which airplanes would use G.P.S. to find their position, then broadcast that information to other planes and to controllers on the ground.
That technology would eliminate the need for conventional radar, and for radio beacons on the ground used for navigation. But in contrast to radar and navigation beacons, the satellite-based system, known as NextGen, for next generation, requires substantial investment by airplane operators.
They are skeptical. The agency has made a cautious proposal that the airlines equip themselves to broadcast the signals, but not until 2020. They would not have to receive such signals until later, although that step would help airplanes fly closer together without increased risk, a move that would reduce delays.
The airlines have good reason to avoid embracing agency concepts, said James H. Burnley IV, who was the Transportation secretary from 1987 to 1989.
He said the agency has often embraced new technologies, urged the airlines to invest in them, and then dropped them.
“I feel like it’s the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ on these issues,” Mr. Burnley said. “In the late 1980s the F.A.A. leadership was extremely aggressive and pushing toward the microwave landing system,” he said. But as often happens, he said, it took the agency too long to approve the technology “and guess what, it was overtaken” by NextGen.
Airlines have no confidence that the F.A.A. can pay for its part of NextGen, Mr. Burnley said. And with the agency having to rely on annual appropriations from Congress, he said he did not blame them. One way to pay for the system, he said, would be with bonds repaid with air traffic control fees.
NextGen is a joint project with the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA and others. But that may be a problem because it makes consensus harder to reach.
Mr. Goldfarb, the agency’s former chief of staff, described it as “a research project that has no heft, no institutional clout, no significant money behind it.” Mr. Sturgell acknowledged that the problem was complex. But, he said, “I haven’t heard anybody say we should not do NextGen.”
“It is coming down to how you do it, how fast, and who is going to pay for it,” he said.
Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the F.A.A.’s biggest problem was with union workers. The F.A.A. declared an impasse in September 2006 with the union, and Ms. Blakey imposed contract conditions, with sharply lowered pay for new hires, with pay caps for many controllers, spending more time on their radar scopes during the day and a host of smaller changes that some controllers say they find infuriating.
Those smaller changes include the reduced ability to schedule vacation in advance, inability to leave the building during meal breaks and even the dress codes. The agency also said its union employees had abused sick time and overtime rules, and vowed to crack down.
As a result, some controllers are leaving. Most of the controllers now working were hired in the early 1980s, after President Ronald Reagan fired thousands of their predecessors who had gone on strike.
Controllers have a mandatory retirement age of 56, and many are eligible sooner. According to the controllers union, nearly all of the thousands who have retired since the contract was imposed have done so before reaching retirement age. One reason, the union says, is that as the controller population declines, mandatory overtime has shot up to keep the air traffic radar scopes staffed.
The overtime is unavoidable, Mr. Sturgell said, to accommodate on-the-job training, vacations and other requirements. Most overtime is voluntary, he said. The House has passed a reauthorization bill for the agency that would send the current contract into binding arbitration. A Senate version would make binding arbitration available in future disputes. Even without the early retirements, the F.A.A. has been forced to hire and train controllers quickly to replace those hired after the strike in 1981.
The aviation system is facing a dismal summer of delays, but in a perverse way, there is a bright spot, a factor that could limit the number of airplanes in the system for the next few months to a level that the agency can handle.
“If we have fuel prices staying in the current range,” said Mr. Burnley, “we’re going to have fewer airplanes in the sky.”