My Week as a Shadow

By By James T. McKenna | September 23, 2015
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In the late 1990s, I had an unusual opportunity. I was invited—as the safety reporter for a major aerospace trade magazine—to shadow the FAA administrator.

For five days, from shortly after the administrator, Jane Garvey, left her Washington, D.C., apartment for the early-morning, four-block trip to 800 Independence Avenue until the day’s end, I was at her side. I sat in on meetings with her top executives, heard staff brief her on breaking news and developing safety issues and rode with her to speaking engagements. If she retired to her office to write, read and handle paperwork, I followed.

When we were alone, I hit her with a variety of questions. Some followed up on the meetings or major aviation issues. Others—like, what kind of music did she like?—were intended to plumb the person behind the polished, practiced politician and bureaucrat. A Boston Democrat, Garvey had headed Massachusetts’ transportation agency before leading the FAA.


The FAA communications person who set up the visit questioned whether I’d last the full week. The agency had tried this with a newspaper aviation reporter; he didn’t make it past Wednesday. I was there on Friday afternoon when Garvey headed for the shuttle home to Boston. I wasn’t going to waste any opportunity to get an inside look at the agency that many in aviation love to hate.

Some of the best insight into the FAA came when Garvey went off to a meeting with top Transportation Department, congressional or White House officials while I was sent to visit with the agency’s senior staff.

It’s common to ridicule bureaucracies as ponderous and inept. But those few senior staff conversations revealed hoops through which the FAA must jump and that I’d never imagined might have existed. Take two broad topics: safety resources and safety rules.

Congress can tinker continually with the federal budget. For an agency like the FAA, that can mean endless budget drills. During my week there, some congressional staffers seeking to rebalance federal spending had asked the FAA to assess the impact of giving back 2% of its actual budget. In business and smaller public agencies, you might estimate that answer. In Washington, for a whole host of reasons good and bad, you wouldn’t do that.

For a portion of that week, managers at every level of the FAA (such as the Rotorcraft Directorate) spent hours getting briefed on the request from their bosses, crunching the numbers with their own staffs and feeding answers back up the chain. This had occurred not long after the FAA had responded to a congressional question about the impact of a 3% giveback. The managers and their staffs were focused not on safety and certification issues but on drills for budget changes—which, by the way, never came.

Implementing new or revised safety rules and the associated guidance are no easy matters.

Even before an FAA office can start the process of, say, clearing obstacles to certification of helicopter autopilots, flight directors and synthesized power indicators, it must compete for rule-making attention and resources. The agency can enact only so many rules each year, so it prioritizes its efforts. Making that cut can take years.

Once proposed rules are in the queue, they have to be coordinated with the Transportation Department and be opened for public comment. A wise bureaucrat also will ensure key people in Congress are kept up to speed on the rules’ purposes and content.

These observations from my week as a shadow came to mind in mid-September as industry and FAA leaders debated the state of efforts to comply with a 2020 mandate for outfitting aircraft in U.S. airspace with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast systems. As you read this, we have fewer than 1,070 working days to equip thousands of helicopters with ADS-B.

The debate demonstrated that there is no clear path for achieving that goal. It also highlighted that the hurdles in our path are much broader than ADS-B and extend to every certification project, whether for a new rotorcraft or for a system upgrade.

I offer these observations not as an excuse for the FAA. There is plenty wrong with its certification rules and processes. But pointing to those flaws without considering the context that contributes to them is a road to certain failure. FAA leaders know what is wrong with today’s certification regime, as do their EASA counterparts. Many might be hamstrung in trying to fix that.

Focusing on the fix is the objective of our Rotorcraft Certification Summit on Oct. 27 in Irving, Texas. The fix will require greater collaboration than we have achieved to date; it will be a long-term effort. I hope you will join us in starting that work. You can find more at www.rotorcraftsummit.com.

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