Rule changes signal new freedom for FAA

Today the Federal Aviation Administration sweeps away layers of procurement and personnel management regulations that have developed over half a century and replaces them with fewer, and what it hopes are more flexible and easier-to-follow, rules that will help it keep pace with rapid advancements in information technology.

"These are the most comprehensive, boldest changes to the FAA in many decades," said Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, announcing the reforms last week. The FAA claims its new procedures will save the government $200 million in the next three years alone and cut the time it takes to deploy equipment in half.

The new rules are the result of a law Congress passed last fall that allowed the FAA to completely revamp its procurement and personnel systems without regard to existing acquisition and employment rules.

But longtime FAA observers said the new procurement rules will not, by themselves, ensure that agency programs succeed. FAA critics contend that the agency's problems fielding complex systems stem not from burdensome procurement rules but from an inability to manage system deployment once contracts were awarded.

"I think there is a cultural problem," said Bob Dornan, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. "There have been agencies that have upgraded their equipment several times" during the past three decades under the same rules the FAA has jettisoned, he said, while FAA modernization efforts languished.

Jack Ryan, senior vice president for air traffic management at the Air Transport Association, said true reform will require the FAA to change its management approach. Ryan, who was part of the "blue ribbon" panel of government and industry procurement experts who advised the FAA on its plan, said new personnel rules will help, but the agency needs to aggressively retrain employees to perform in the new system and hire "new talent throughout the agency."

The new system integrates system planning, acquisition and management under Integrated Product Teams (IPTs) that are responsible for planning, purchasing, deploying and upgrading the FAA's technology investments. Each team will include agency users, engineering experts, contracting officials, lawyers and others with a stake in a particular project.

Although the FAA has used such teams in the past, its members have more authority under the new rules. For example, most source-selection decisions now will be made by the IPT leader rather than high-level FAA executives.

George Donohue, the FAA's associate administrator for research and acquisition, said it will take about a year and half for the agency to bring all its acquisitions into the new system because employees need to be trained to take on new responsibilities.

The new rules will apply immediately to three information technology programs: the Operational and Supportability Implementation System, the Advanced Oceanic Automation System and the Integrated Terminal Weather System. Another seven programs will be brought into the system over the next three to four months, Donohue said.

The panel also said the FAA's timetable for applying its personnel reforms across the agency is "unacceptable," and the acquisition workforce should be allowed to use innovative hiring, management, compensation and incentive practices immediately.

In addition, the panel said, the FAA must ensure that it obtains more stable funding for its programs through "internal and external budget reform." Linda Hall Daschle, the FAA's deputy administrator, said changing how the FAA gets its money every year "is the third leg of the stool" needed to support the reinvented agency.

A bill pending in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would allow the FAA to fund its operations through user fees. The FAA supports this bill but not a related measure, recently passed by the House, that would make the FAA an independent agency but not give it control over its budget.

The aviation industry generally supports the House bill, but general aviation companies, in particular, oppose the Senate bill because it would result in them paying higher fees.

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