Piloting FAA's modernization

When the Federal Aviation Administration tapped Steven Zaidman as the agency's associate administrator for research and acquisitions in July, he said people did not know whether to congratulate him or send condolences.

"I said neither," said Zaidman, a 21-year veteran of the FAA. "It's a challenging job, but it's doable. If it weren't, I wouldn't be here. I know you can be successful in this job, and being successful in this job means being successful as an agency."

As an agency, the FAA must address major issues, such as reducing airspace congestion and improving the safety and security of the system, as it moves into the next century. Despite the difficulty of these problems, Zaidman does not let the job overwhelm him.

"When you look at the big picture and know what the job is, what your goals are and how you want to operate, then the job becomes much more rewarding and easier," he said. "If you have a good organization and work force, it makes it a lot easier."

Zaidman's ability to put things into perspective should serve him well as he undertakes a daunting task: overseeing a 2,000-person organization that is primarily responsible for designing and upgrading the National Airspace System (NAS) infrastructure.

When Zaidman applied for the job, he struggled with whether the FAA would be better served by an industry representative or an FAA insider— a question he still has not answered. However, Zaidman was confident he could do the job as well as the next person. "I thought I could help support the goals of the agency," he said.

What Zaidman wants to bring to the job, he said, is a "sense of openness, a sense of honesty and a sense of trust.

"It's not that those things don't exist; it's that I want to reinforce them," he said. "I want people to feel empowered and feel that they can float up bad news as well as good news. I'd like people to be fairly candid. In order to make good decisions, you really need good information."

Zaidman's experience at the FAA runs wide and deep. He most recently served as acting deputy administrator for research and acquisitions. Before that he was the director of the Office of System Architecture and Investment Analysis, and he also served as the deputy director of the Office of Communications, Navigation and Surveillance Systems. Before that, he served for four years as the director of the FAA's Research and Development Service.

"I guess it was a natural progression for me to be considered for this job because it involves quite a bit of acquisition and quite a bit of research," Zaidman said. "I view myself as a facilitator and a coordinator and a leader rather than being in charge."

Those lines of business play an essential role in NAS modernization, which consists mainly of replacing the infrastructure, such as upgrading towers and radar, and developing new capabilities, such as satellite navigation technology.

"What is becoming more and more important for us is consideration of human factors and, as we improve the system, how people make the transition and move from older technology to newer technology," Zaidman said.

Despite the challenges of his new job, Zaidman said the hardest thing he has ever done is learn to play golf. "I'm on my second set of clubs," he said. "With the first set, I said, 'Maybe it's the equipment.' [With] the second set, I validated that it was the human."

Zaidman said he manages not to bring work issues home with him on the weekend so that he can spend quality time with his family. "I look forward to work, but I also look forward to going home," he said. "It's the question of, 'Do you live to work or work to live?' I answered that long ago. Work and career have their place, but that's not what I'm on this planet for."

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