Failure is not an option

Although he's not orchestrating precise airplane movements anymore, the Federal Aviation Administration's Charlie Keegan has an important air traffic control job of a different sort: guiding the FAA's modernization plan to a smooth landing 10 years from now.

Keegan, a 22-year FAA veteran, was tapped in June to lead the modernization effort outlined in the agency's Operational Evolution Plan, which spells out when and how the FAA will implement its numerous information technology and policy programs over the next decade. The OEP's goal is to increase the capacity of the taxed National Airspace System by 30 percent.

"The OEP is the FAA's response to an ever-increasing demand for aviation," Keegan said. As executive director of National Airspace System evolution, "it's my job to manage that to fruition—not only to deliver the technology, but make sure we meet the capacity that's expected."

The plan incorporates more than 50 projects planned or under way and accounts for about $11.5 billion in FAA investment, not including the money that airlines and other aviation stakeholders will need to contribute. Satellite-based navigation and data link technology, which transmits data between controllers and pilots and thus reduces the need for voice communication, are just two examples of innovations in the works.

It's a high-profile effort for an agency that has seen major modernization efforts fail before. Its evolutionary, one-step-at-a-time approach departs from previous plans—most notably the Advanced Automation System, an ambitious program to modernize systems throughout all air traffic control centers that was broken up into smaller projects in 1994, after six years and $1.5 billion of agency money.

Keegan said the FAA has learned from past mistakes such as AAS, which he worked on as an air traffic specialist. This time around, officials have made a point of including controllers, airlines and other aviation community members. His job is to ensure the new program's success.

"The FAA has clearly turned the corner on delivering modernization capabilities and [IT] services," he said. "We know how to do this, and we have the appropriate skill sets and course skills. It's my job to serve more as an account representative to the [aviation] community about how we're doing this."

Keegan's path to an aviation career took flight at age 12, when a school field trip took him to the air traffic control tower at the Syracuse, N.Y., airport. From that point on, he wanted to be a controller. He accomplished that goal in May 1979 and obtained a private pilot's license along the way.

He held various air traffic control jobs for the next 10 years and eventually landed in Washington, D.C. Before accepting his current position, Keegan was director of the FAA's Free Flight program, a high-profile effort to provide technologies to enable pilots to fly more direct and timesaving routes.

The Free Flight experience helped him prepare for his new challenge, Keegan said. He learned that listening and providing candid feedback help ensure success—as does focusing on a clearly defined mission. He admits that he isn't good at dealing with the minor day-to-day problems of employees that can distract a team from achieving its goal.

"A lot of people are really good managers," he said. "I'm probably not a really good manager. What I am is a really good leader. If you want leadership, I can come to the table. If you want a middle manager, fine, but that's not me."

That's not to say he doesn't tolerate mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, he said—but failure isn't.

"The OEP's mission is on capacity," he said. "There will be a number of mistakes made along the way. That's okay, as long as we make progress. As long as we listen to the [aviation] community, the plan will be successful."

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