Save the FAA from itself

The Federal Aviation Administration is at it again. Every four years or so during the past two decades, the agency has announced a grand plan to reform how it manages the nation's air traffic information technology systems. All the plans have been failures.

Last month, FAA officials launched a 10-year "operational evolution plan," through which they intend to consolidate the entire infrastructure into a single coherent system. I don't want to say that this plan, too, is doomed, but there are reasons to expect trouble.

The most important reason is built into the FAA's charter. In essence, the agency has two distinct and largely conflicting functions:

n First, Congress chartered it to ensure air traffic safety. The FAA accomplishes this mission by issuing Air Worthiness Directives to address specific aircraft safety concerns, by conducting inspections and by otherwise serving as an independent evaluator of all aspects of the aviation community that touch on safety concerns.

n Second, the FAA operates the country's primary air traffic control system, including the acquisition and management of almost all IT resources used to establish take-off and landing times, routing and other critical customer-convenience factors for the commercial airline industry.

The FAA's problems result from combining these two responsibilities into a single agency. The agency's first mission requires caution, patience and a watch.dog mentality. The FAA accomplishes this mission extra.ordinarily well by anyone's account.

But the second mission requires a different set of skills: innovation and a results- oriented willingness to take action when needed. The FAA has been culturally unable to meet those challenges.

In the mid-1990s, the FAA blamed its failings on the need to comply with government personnel and procurement rules, which FAA officials claimed were holding them back. They never explained why the FAA was the only agency unable to follow the rules. Congress, however, granted the FAA's wish.

The General Accounting Office determined in 1996 that the FAA's problems were more fundamental. The GAO report stated: "FAA's organizational culture has been an underlying cause of the agency's acquisition problems" and required fundamental cultural change. In 1997, the FAA itself reached a similar conclusion.

What should be done? The first thing is to separate the air traffic control infrastructure out of the FAA. Let the FAA concentrate on what it does well: air safety. The FAA's safety standards and independent safety inspection systems are a model for the world and must be protected. But air traffic control should not be in the same agency.

Beyond that, there is room for debate. Some industry observers favor the creation of a government-owned corporation similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority to manage the air traffic control system. Other commentators favor greater use of outsourcing to get as much responsibility as possible into the hands of private industry. A combination of both ideas, with an independent government corporation outsourcing elements of the system, may be an even better idea.

Regardless of which approach is used, it will be important to maintain the FAA's role in ensuring safety. The FAA should employ a small but effective air traffic control safety inspection team as an independent reviewer of the newly separate air traffic control entity, whatever form it takes.

The FAA's problems are not unique to the United States. Nearly two dozen other major countries have already privatized their air traffic control systems. It is time for our nation to do the same.

Peckinpaugh is corporate counsel for DynCorp in Reston, Va. This column represents his personal views.

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