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Trapped in the Middle

If you fall and break your legs, don't come running to me. - Samuel Goldwyn

Subject:       FAA   (pig-in-a-poke OR piggy-in-the-middle?)

Date: Sun, 18 Apr 1999 18:17:26 -0400
From: "Lyn S. Romano" <rosebush@bestweb.net>

Following the ValuJet DC-9 crash in the Florida Everglades that left 110 dead, the Inspector General of the DOT (Mary Schiavo) created something of a media event when she referred to the FAA as a Tombstone agency. Much of the public reacted as if they had never before heard the term used in reference to a government agency. Airline pilots, however, have closely identified with that moniker since the federal government first commenced overseeing air safety. Nonetheless, I was elated that a person of such high office had the courage to speak out, and to do so with such candor. Within the week, however, Ms. Schiavo tendered her resignation. While I do not know what transpired to bring about that resignation, long years of close observation assures me that whistleblowers are most unwelcomed and generally not tolerated inside the Washington beltway.

But in fairness, we must ask if this tombstone moniker hung around the neck of the FAA is fully deserved? From its genesis in 1958, the agency has been marked by two gross flaws that were not of its own making. First, as with most political appointments, those selected to head up the agency were chosen for reasons apart from their aviation expertise. The second flaw lay in the Congress burdening the agency with a dual mandate that was rife with conflicting interests. Even given an administrator with enough courage to buck the political system, linking air safety to the economic well-being of the industry within a single agency was beyond the pale of common sense. But, of course, the Congress of the United States has never been known for its application of common sense in resolving problems. Rather, the name of the game among the ruling oligarchy is power, and the degree of that power is measured by the number of bureaucratic fiefdoms under one's control and influence.

At the same time, we need to understand that viewed separately these two conflicting mandates are not in and of themselves wrong-headed. Not only is air safety of vital national interest to us all, but so too is the economic viability of our airline industry. Clearly, however, both interests are better served when not supervised by a single administrator wearing two hats. With one political appointee charged with guarding
air safety, while another looks after the financial interests of airlines, the resulting inter-agency conflict would bring the issues into full public view. But will Congress ever move to change the status quo? It doesn't appear so, for if the fatal airline accidents of the recent past and the resulting media avalanche have failed to move the powers that be, then what will it take? And herein lies the very essence of any bureaucratic oligarchy: Make an unwary citizenry think that something meaningful is being done, or about to be done, when in fact that is not the case at all.

Caught in the political middle from its outset, the FAA's shackles were drawn even tighter by two subsequent events. First, the onset of hijackings to Cuba during the 1960s and early '70s catapulted the agency into the airport security business. Then, to satisfy Washington's insatiable appetite for ever-bigger government, President Johnson saw to the creation of a new and all encompassing Transportation Department. Now subordinate to this new DOT and its political appointees, the FAA faced even more
bureaucratic red tape in its efforts to claw its way out from under the proverbial tombstone. Securing the funds necessary to do its job properly had always been an uphill battle, and would become even moreso under a another layer of stifling bureaucracy. As the government slipped ever deeper into debt and deficits, it was inevitable that the Aviation Trust Fund would be raped for strange and exotic government programs far removed from aviation.
I can resist everything but temptation. - Mark Twain David Hinson's appointment to head-up the FAA early in the Clinton administration initially struck me as a good choice. In my view, the President could not have found a better qualified person to run the FAA. Both as a former airline pilot and airline executive, Hinson understood the intricacies of the industry as well as anyone. There remained, however, the inevitable question of how he would fare in dealing with the politics of his new job. Would he stand tall and firm and fight for what he believed to be the right thing? Or, like so many others before him, would he cave in to the political pressures surrounding him on all sides? Most airline pilots thought he would handle himself reasonably well, but the few who knew him personally from earlier times described him to me as a "go along to get along" type. One Northwest captain described him as "a political beast." In retrospect it appears that these "few" were right and the rest of us wrong in our assessment of Hinson. In the latter stages of his tenure at the FAA, Hinson told an aviation group: It's true there's politics . . . there's always politics. Politics are a part of life in Washington, D.C. That's the way the system works! A short time later upon leaving the agency, when queried about having to write his own future speeches, Hinson responded: I have learned to speak for any period of time . . . 30 minutes . . . 45 minutes . . . and not say anything. Clearly, Hinson had fallen victim to Beltway politics wherein truth gives way to telling people only what you want them to hear.

On the other hand, perhaps Hinson was trying to tell us something, for such statements of quiet capitulation speak loudly as to why the FAA is so often viewed as a Tombstone Agency. Like Hinson, administrator after administrator has been far too willing to accept that this is the way the "system works." As they arrive in the steaming political jungles of Washington, most political appointees quickly learn the art of "doublespeak" when dispensing information for public consumption. Because of this mentality, we are driven to conclude that almost the entire federal establishment is afflicted with a Tombstone mentality. Face it . . . even the most informed among us would be hard put to remember the last time governments acted meaningfully to address a serious problem before it reached crisis proportions. So it is little wonder that most of us do not trust our government to act in the public's best interest instead of their own, or that we suffer the impression that inmates are indeed running our bureaucratic asylums.

While most of the accusations and allegations leveled at the FAA are well deserved and often understated, the root blame lies with the two entities that control the appointments and the purse strings. Though we may be hesitant to "give the devil his due," it must be said in all fairness that the FAA has played a vital role in creating the level of safety enjoyed today. Without its presence over the past four decades, our skies would be far less safe than they are. So henceforth let the tirades following every major air disaster
be directed at the real culprits: those elected and appointed politicians who hold in their hands the ultimate power to bring about the necessary changes. Having said that, let's hope that when and if change comes these same politicians will eschew micromanaging air safety the way they have many other aspects of our national life.

As we all know, it's always easy to delineate our problems, but not so easy to arrive at solutions. But when it comes to making our skies as safe as they can be, the best beginning lies in an FAA charged with only one mandate . . . the safety aspects of aviation. Achieving that, we should then appoint the administrator to a specified term of office that will span administrations, and ensure that that administrator is chosen on the basis of aviation experience and not political cronyism or gender and ethnic preferences.
Lastly, let the Congress fund the FAA budget so that it can do its job properly. Vacuum tube computers guiding our airplanes through the crowded skies of the 21st Century? Sheer stupidity!

After David Hinson's departure from the FAA, an inexperienced wife of a U.S. Senator (Linda Daschle), temporarily succeeded him. Finally, after months of prognostication, President Clinton appointed a new administrator who assumed office on August 5, 1997. Jane Garvey's prior aviation expertise consist of a stint as director of Boston's Logan Airport. While Ms. Garvey fits the gender requirements of the Clinton administration, like Ms. Daschle she is ill-qualified to run the agency irrespective of her heralded managerial talents. But all is not gloom, for if Ms. Garvey has the right stuff to rise above politics and
permits her trained underlings within the agency to do their jobs without interference, she now has a five-years certain term to ensure her tenure. Like all her predecessors, Garvey will not be serving at the whim of the president. In addition, her now certain tenure gives us solid cause to hold her accountable for her job performance. So, let your benefactor and politicians be damned, Ms. Garvey. Just do your job!
And, it's nice that you're now taking some flying lessons, for it will help to know the difference between an aileron and a rudder.



and read:   http://www.avweb.com/articles/pelperch/pelp0023.html   for background

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