A Call for Leadership

Aug. 8, 2001

A Call For Leadership

One idea: a new U.S. Commission of Aviation — one with guts

By William F. Shea, former FAA Associate Administrator for Airports

August 2001

Is the United States losing its resolve and ability to handle aviation growth? Are we losing our world leadership position in aviation and aerospace? No bold vision for the future aviation system is evident. As industry employees try to do their best to keep the system moving, serious problems continue. Strong leadership is needed now to maintain and expand our nation’s aviation system to meet growth forecasts.

Congress appears uncertain, with some members uneasy about the new ten-year National Airspace System Operational Evolution Plan recently introduced by the Federal Aviation Administration, noting commercial aircraft utilization will grow by 30 percent by 2010. Actual growth could be even higher. Demand for new jets continues to grow. ATC will be burdened more than ever.
The recent entry of United Airlines into the corporate fractional market, along with the new 737-type business jets being built, will add a significant impact. We can expect some 1,250 or more large new aircraft coming online by 2020. Are we ready?

A Stretched Dot
The U.S. Department of Transportation, with a record number of air transport complaints, is trying to do the job. Consider, however, some of its other responsibilities: St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation; FAA; Federal Railroad Administration; National Highway Traffic Safety Administra-tion; Federal Highway Administration; Federal Transit Administration; Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration; Maritime Administra-tion; and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The question, of course, is how in the world can the U.S. DOT do justice to aviation and aeronautics, which is so global in nature? Can this nation plan intelligently and creatively to meet the needs of the forecast growth?

Situation Out West
Here in the Western U.S., the three Bay Area airports — San Fran-cisco, Oakland, and San Jose — could expect 111 million passengers departing and arriving by 2015. There is no way these airports will be able to handle that growth, even if they added five runways.
One answer may be an adjacent shore-to-land airport, or a new airfield to the east. Political and environmental reasons make these unlikely. A quick-term answer is to use Travis Air Force Base on East Bay.
Los Angeles International will eventually reach its cap. One reason is surface access brought about by unconstrained growth.
The former El Toro Marine Air Base offers potential to add capacity, but an offshore airport located between LAX and San Diego would be ideal.
In the Northwest, Sea-Tac will continue to have serious expansion problems. And, Portland Internation-al Airport (PDX) will experience similar challenges. Incidentally, PDX has a trump card it could play: build a new international airport in the Willamette Valley to the south.

Total System Direction
We need a new U.S. Commission of Aviation, reporting directly to the White House with appropriate Congressional oversight. This requires political will and resolve.
The commission could be responsible for the total system — in planning, implementation, operations, air traffic control, limited regulatory review of routes and fares. It could work closely with airports to ensure that infrastructure projects are expedited. Promoting aviation in the U.S. and abroad could also be a role.
FAA should be reformed and would report directly to the new commission, which could be directed by a board of seven elected for five-year terms. Possible candidates/mix: a retired CEO from Boeing; James Wilding from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority; aviatrix Betsy Johnson, who led the change removing Oregon’s aeronautics division from the state DOT; former FAA Administrator David Hinson; an ATC veteran; and, a respected former member of Congress.
On May 24, at a House Transpor-tation Aviation Subcommittee hearing, testimony from leading aviation officials centered on the multiple hurdles required to build a new runway. As I recall, one contractor indicated a runway could be built in four to six months. Streamling the environmental process is helpful, but it seems that a bigger picture approach that considers national and global issues needs discussion. A break at the hearing brought comments in the hallway:
"... AIR-21 will save the system..."
"... free flight is the answer ..."
"... airline deregulation will wind up like California’s electricity deregulation fiasco..."
"... we’ll rebuild the ATC system..."
"... the FAA will handle it..."
"... the White House has a plan."
No clear idea of what to do seemed to surface. Yet, patchwork and dike-plugging responses will not work.
There are many more advantages to creating a national commission, but the concept needs a forum. You see, we have an exciting opportunity.

About the Author
Bill Shea is a former FAA Associate Administrator for Airports and aviation director for Broome County, Binghamton, NY, and the Port of Portland (OR). An aerospace/aviation lecturer and active pilot, Shea has served as first director of both CALTRANS and the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Aviation Institute; and, as chair/professor for the University of North Dakota, Aviation Department, Center for Aerospace Sciences. He is based in Woodland, CA, and can be reached at (530) 406-1386.