The Reason Foundation, as part of the Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter, has published an article that discusses the separation of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization as well as criticizes the changes the FAA made to the hiring process.
Further Thoughts on a Separate Air Traffic Organization
Last month’s article on a near-term reform that would remove the ATO from safety regulator FAA and make it a separate DOT modal agency has generated a lot of feedback, nearly all positive. For those who are not persuaded, I first offer some background on how the original model of a business-like Air Traffic Organization was subverted by FAA. After that, I suggest some additional specifics of the proposed reform measure that could be included in the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill between now and September 30th.
The first two Chief Operating Officers of the ATO did yeoman work in an effort to convert a large and unwieldy bureaucracy into a business-like entity. But those changes did not sit well with new DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who took office in mid-2009. Babbitt’s first change was to forbid the ATO from referring to airspace users as “customers,” confusing the difference between those being regulatedby the FAA’s regulatory function and those receiving services from its air traffic function.
But far worse was his effort to break down the separation between the ATO and the rest of FAA. In 2010 he commissioned the Monitor Group to do an organizational review. The study was kept under wraps so tightly that even the DOT Inspector General’s Office did not learn about it until well after I wrote about it in the May 2011 issue of this newsletter. And I only learned about it when an ATO insider leaked me the link to a March 2, 2011 “all-hands video briefing” on the results of the study. Monitor Group, like all good consultants, figured out the results Babbitt wanted–and delivered them. It identified “duplication” between FAA and ATO, so its number-one recommendation was to “optimize shared services.” Another was to “build one FAA culture.” The title of my newsletter article was “Is the ATO Being Dismantled?” and the answer clearly was yes.
Two major changes stemmed from those recommendations One was to take the overall NextGen responsibility away from the ATO, having it report directly to the FAA Administrator rather than the ATO Chief Operating Officer. And the other was that the ATO lost control of its personnel policies-and especially the recruitment of new controllers. Despite both internal and external studies having recommended relying heavily on recruiting from graduates of the Collegiate Training Initiative, FAA’s human resources people (in the name of “diversity”) substituted a bizarre off-the-street recruitment process that required applicants to “pass” a Biographical Questionnaire-which excluded many highly qualified CTI graduates. This change provoked bipartisan congressional outrage and was subsequently scaled back, but not eliminated.
With this as background, here are some specifics about what should be included and excluded in separating the ATO from FAA. Clearly, as a new modal agency the New ATO would need to have control of its own personnel system, including recruitment and training. It should also have its own legal and administrative functions. It should notinclude either the FAA Tech Center in Atlantic City or the Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City. The New ATO would be able to contract with those entities for any services it needed (and a revamped approach to controller training might reduce or eventually eliminate the current training at the Academy in Oklahoma City, as has been recommended by outside studies).
Clearly, New ATO should regain full control of all of NextGen. A key premise of creating the ATO was to combine technology development/procurement with ATC operations, rather than these being separate domains, as had been FAA practice. Years ago, Congress enacted FAA procurement reforms, which have never really been used to rethink and streamline how the FAA/ATO develop and procure new systems. That procurement freedom should be passed along intact to New ATO.
But would New ATO actually reform development and procurement? That is unlikely unless New ATO is also freed from civil service constraints. Making that admittedly large change would have large benefits. First, it would permit the organization to recruit and compensate highly qualified engineering, software, and program management people-and hold them accountable for results. Second, it would permit termination of people whom some refer to as “on-the-job retirees,” whose de-facto interest is in a large, complex bureaucratic system. This reform will likely be opposed by the FAA Managers Association, but would likely be supported by controllers’ union NATCA, which has been on board with the non-civil-service status of the planned ATC Corporation-and NATCA’s membership vastly outstrips FAAMA’s.
Finally, New ATO should be run by a Chief Executive Officer, not a Chief Operating Officer. The CEO would be accountable to the Secretary of Transportation, and would be advised by a New ATO Advisory Board, separate from the current FAA Management Advisory Council. Its headquarters should be entirely separate from the current FAA building in Washington. (Several people have suggested locating it adjacent to the Command Center in Warrenton, VA.) And of course the revamped entity would require its own website and email addresses. How about NewATO.org?