Inside the Fence

July 23, 2008

Airports are in a quagmire, but FAA is in a conundrum ...

The mood at this year’s AAAE convention in New Orleans should have been at best somber. It was more the attitude of an industry sector on hold. Or, comparable to the accident victim who thinks all is well but is actually in a state of shock.

Airline and Wall Street reps conveyed that the worst is yet to come when it comes to commercial aviation. Airport managers basically walked around with fingers crossed, hoping their community wasn’t the next on the list to lose service.

Yet, the image that stands out is that of the annual FAA panel, one in which the agency offers its perspective on priorities, and industry asks its questions and shares its concerns.

What echoes in the mind is the image of a panel of FAA’ers who are there to offer answers and insight; yet, the industry under them is out of control because of two things they can’t control — fuel and the U.S. Congress.It was the look on their faces.

The best quote comes from FAA Associate Administrator for Airports Kirk Shaffer during the follow-up Q&A, when asked about the ongoing reauthorization debacle in Congress. “This is no way to run a system” is the quote. Even the most adept, honest, loyal, want-to-do-the-right-thing FAA employees can’t perform if the Congress that directs them fails to direct.

Moving past politics, the FAA panel offered items of note...

  • Shaffer says it “infuriates him” when he hears of disparities between what FAA regions and headquarters are telling industry. Yet, the disparity has been a No. 1 complaint of industry forever.
  • FAA is placing an emphasis on international standardization. “We recognize we’re part of a global system,” says Shaffer.
  • The agency is about six months out from sharing with industry the results of its pilot program on the Safety Management System initiative. The good news: Shaffer says FAA recognizes that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to SMS.
  • Regarding the funding impasse in Congress and how airports can plan, FAA’s Benito DeLeon says the advice is: 1) if the program is ready to go, do it; 2) if it can wait and you don’t need the money now, hold it over to the next year; and 3) a wait-and-see approach.
  • From FAA’s Charles Leader of the JPDO office on ATC modernization: “Most people don’t understand that the system is not scalable” — it’s at its technical limits.

Should Congress actually ever accept its responsibility and pass FAA reauthorization, the question now out there is: What are we funding? ATC modernization is a slam-dunk; pumping money into airport infrastructure has become another question. We know it’s needed — but where? Not easy to define in a rapidly changing industry. Which probably explains the look on the faces of the FAA panel.

Thanks for reading.