Face-to-Face with FAA Administrator
Marion Blakey

By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor, and Rob Wiley, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, October 2003, p. 12

ALPA has been a genuine part of airline safety right from the beginning, in a very practical way.
—Marion Blakey, FAA Administrator

In many appearances and speeches since Marion Blakey was appointed administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration a year ago, she has pulled no punches about the state of the industry her agency is charged with regulating.

"This is an industry in economic peril," she said at the First Annual Transportation Week Conference in May.

"Today, some 25 percent of U.S. airline capacity is in bankruptcy," she noted at the FAA’s 28th Annual Forecast Conference in March.

However, she also predicted at the Forecast Conference that the industry would recover, albeit in a changing environment. "Traffic will come back," she said. "Aviation is too important. It contributes too much to our economy, our global competitiveness, and our quality of life. Demand will return. The question is, when?"

And she noted the strength of the U.S airline industry at the 57th Aerospace Industries Association Annual Conference in May. "This is an industry that generates economic activity equal to 15 percent of the national gross domestic product, and supports 11 million American jobs," she said at that conference.

To handle that uncertain transition from today’s economic turmoil to a more stable financial environment, Blakey has put together an experienced team at the FAA, including a former ALPA pilot as deputy administrator, and has emphasized pragmatic budget management until the recovery reaches more solid ground. She and her management team are making hard decisions on which programs deserve "fast track" attention and which ones get shunted aside to the "slow" track.

She has continually said publicly that her overriding concern is and always will be safety.

Marion Clifton Blakey was sworn in on Sept. 13, 2002, as the 15th FAA Administrator. Before her FAA appointment, she served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Blakey had also held four other presidential appointments, two of which required Senate confirmation. From 1992 to 1993, Blakey served as administrator of the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Before that, she held key positions at the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the White House, and the Department of Transportation.

From 1993 to 2001, Blakey was the principal of Blakey & Associates, now Blakey & Agnew, a public affairs consulting firm with a particular focus on transportation issues and traffic safety.

Blakey’s principal deputy is Robert A. Sturgell, who officially assumed his duties as the FAA’s 12th Deputy Administrator in March. He oversees the agency’s day-to-day operations, capital programs, and modernization efforts. A former United Airlines first officer and ALPA member, Sturgell served as policy advisor at the NTSB and also acted as Chairman Blakey’s primary advisor and coordinator on NTSB recommendations, policy programs, and other safety initiatives. He has also practiced aviation law at the Washington, D.C., law firm Shaw Pittman.

Air Line Pilot interviewed Administrator Blakey and Deputy Administrator Sturgell in late August at ALPA’s 49th annual Air Safety Forum. Here’s their take on the FAA’s flight plan for the near and medium future.

Air Line Pilot: As FAA Administrator, you have had to juggle the enormous and sometimes competing demands of your stated three top priorities—safety, capacity, and efficiency. Nowhere does this challenge seem to loom so large as in dealing with your agency’s budget and the urgent need to keep the NAS Modernization program on track. Controller/pilot datalink communication (CPDLC) is one of the high-profile NASMOD programs that budget cuts have "slow tracked." Why was CPDLC cut? How will "slow tracking" CPDLC affect other NAS-MOD initiatives that were intended to build upon it?

Administrator Blakey: As I see it, NAS modernization is something that’s organic and has to adapt and change as circumstances warrant. We want to take advantage of the things for which we can get the most benefit on the fastest timetable. For other things that may not produce that kind of immediate benefit, reassessing them and sometimes putting them on a slower track or stopping them altogether makes sense.

That’s what we were facing when we looked at the situation with controller/pilot datalink. The plans for that project anticipated a very healthy airline industry that would be able to equip airliners with the proper equipment so that we would, in fact, see the benefits on a large scale. About a third of the fleet would have to add that new equipment to see the cost-benefit ratio work out well for the kind of expenditure of resources going into it.

Very clearly, with the events of September 11 and the decline in the health of the airline industry, no one we talked to could see that kind of expenditure in the immediate future. So we were faced with a tough choice: do we continue to pour resources into an area where we cannot have the kind of planned benefit we need, or do we put those resources somewhere that does not depend on the airline industry’s expending its own resources when the carriers are not in a position to do so?

So that was the choice and that was the reason for the decision to essentially keep CPDLC as a pilot program. We have built one down in Miami, and we will continue to see benefits from that program as a prototype. It doesn’t mean that in the long run the NAS won’t have the advantage of some form of datalink communications, but right now, that’s the status.

I think it makes sense also, given our circumstances, to reassess our datalink program against what’s going on internationally.

Deputy Administrator Sturgell: In addition to cost-benefit analysis and the potential benefit we would have to receive, we still have to work through some performance issues before we take this project to a national level. Some of those issues include where the messages are received in the cockpit in terms of pilot interaction, what are the right messages to send, and certification.

I think the Administrator is right, that in the long term everybody agrees that, in some form, CPDLC will be part of the system.

ALP: Your successor as NTSB chairman, Ellen Engleman, was quoted in the July 16 issue of Aviation Daily as asserting, "Cost is not a factor in safety." She urged "finding a lower-cost alternative if a particular modal agency found NTSB’s recommendations too costly." Have you talked with her about this issue, and what is your response to her challenge?

Blakey: I’ve been in frequent communication with Ellen Engleman. I am a big proponent of a very close working relationship between the FAA and the NTSB, and one of the advantages I hope my tenure at the NTSB will bring to my term as FAA Administrator is the direct knowledge of the Board’s work so that we can have a much more dynamic relationship that will come to agreement on a lot of safety goals. We see the Board as being of vital importance in terms of promoting safety and urging the FAA to take action. This is a very healthy dynamic.

On the whole, we at the FAA certainly like to see, where possible, a voluntary program. It allows us to move ahead quickly, because the rulemaking process itself can be long and drawn out.
—Marion Blakey, FAA Administrator

The question of cost, of course, is something that the Board does not have to weigh, but we do. We have to come up with solutions that can be done near-term, that can be something that the industry can accommodate. One of the great examples of how that has worked out well is the issue of fuel-tank inerting. The Board urged for many years that the FAA address the issue of fuel-tank flammability. I championed that when I was there, because we were convinced that it is a significant safety risk.

The FAA benefited, therefore, by the NTSB’s recommendations and urging on this and continued to try to come up with a solution that ultimately turned out to be a real breakthrough from a safety standpoint. Despite the fact that a lot of the early work had been on the basis of ground-based systems, FAA engineers at our Tech Center came up with an onboard inerting system. FAA engineers came up with a lightweight, onboard inerting system with a cost-benefit ratio that works out very well. The NTSB’s efforts in continuing to push this issue prompted the kind of ingenuity and creativity that has to go into producing the right solution.

ALP: Is that the system that Boeing recently tested?

Blakey: Yes, it is. There’s credit to be shared all the way around. The early work on this system was done by a lot of people.

Interestingly enough, the FAA engineer, Ivor Thomas, was once a Boeing employee. When he developed the system, he was working for the FAA. After he finished his career at Boeing, he came to the FAA because he wanted to continue to work on the issue of fuel-tank flammability.

We had gotten a lot of discouraging advice. We convened two ARACs—Aviation Rulemaking and Advisory Committees—which kept coming back and saying "too expensive, too difficult, too heavy, won’t work."

So the actual system was conceived and prototyped in our Tech Center, but again give credit back to Boeing. They are the manufacturer that very quickly picked up the fact that this was a breakthrough and was something they could see doing. They moved very quickly to do the test flights and to work with us to certify it.

So I would have to say that while this system is certainly an FAA product, it took a lot of work on both sides to make it a reality.

Sturgell: I think that’s what you see with any tough problem: teamwork among the NTSB, the FAA, the manufacturers, everybody involved in the problem.

Blakey: When you consider the context of Ellen’s comments about lower-cost alternatives, onboard inerting is a very good example of how persistence can find solutions.

ALP: On July 26, you talked about an initiative you had just launched to have small teams along with Deputy Administrator Sturgell and other people from the FAA working directly with a team from the NTSB trying to resolve the backlog of open Safety Board recommendations. Would you like to elaborate on that initiative?

Sturgell: It’s a great effort, something that Administrator Blakey started when she was with the NTSB, and I did a lot of work on safety recommendations over there. Our very first meeting there was with the Department of Transportation’s Research and Special Programs Administration, and as RSPA Administrator, Ellen came to the table with just as much energy and commitment to resolve these issues. Now that Administrator Blakey has come to the FAA and Ellen has stepped in as the NTSB chairman, the process is continuing.

We’ve had our first meeting and covered a dozen or so air traffic recommendations, and we have already scheduled a follow-up meeting on emergency and survival equipment. We’re going to try to decide which issues are most important to everybody and how to get those on a faster track, and what we need to do to get the backlog down to a point where it’s manageable now and we can really make a difference in the work we do. And it goes to Ellen’s statement that cost is not a factor: where cost is a factor, we will seek less-expensive ways to accomplish the same thing.

ALP: To be clear on this, our impression is that this is the first time the two agencies have worked so directly together. Is that correct?

Sturgell: Yes, it’s a different way of doing business. To make it work, we have to get rid of some of that formality, some of that bureaucratic paperwork and use a process that gives everybody an incentive to keep the dialogue open, to keep the interaction working. I think both agencies have great reputations. The Board is traditionally independent, and this kind of process is not going to compromise that independence at all. That’s not what it’s about; it’s about getting safety tools.

Blakey: We’ve seen that both the NTSB and the FAA have tremendous technical expertise to address these problems, but the two agencies see the problems from different perspectives. Getting people in the same room saying, "Here are the recommendations, let’s talk about the number of ways of addressing the problem," is very exciting.

Together, I think we are going to make a lot more progress more quickly than we would otherwise, by tapping the strength of both organizations.

ALP: You obviously bring a deep understanding of the NTSB’s role to your position as FAA Administrator. While at the NTSB, you also worked very closely with ALPA on many issues. How do you see that relationship continuing, and how can you make use of what ALPA has to offer?

Blakey: ALPA has been a genuine part of airline safety right from the beginning, in a very practical way. One of the first people I talked to when I joined the NTSB was [ALPA’s president, Capt.] Duane Woerth. [Capt.] John Cox asked me to fly along with him up and down the East Coast. That is typical of the kind of very practical, hands-on way of working together with ALPA rather than some of the more distant relationships that you can have in some associations. The agenda is much more compelling when you have an opportunity to look at it together in the real world in which pilots are operating.

Also, fundamentally, pilots are in an absolutely critical position to make assessments about a lot of the things we do in the aviation system and about whether in the real-world environment those things can make a difference, whether it’s a good use of resources. That kind of helpful reality check is what ALPA offers.

Sturgell: The resources that ALPA contributes to these efforts are unique; most organizations don’t have that kind of talent, they don’t have the people who volunteer to step up at all levels—locally, regionally, nationally. And they don’t have the money behind them to do the really substantial work. ALPA does all that.

Blakey: And it’s been such a long commitment from ALPA in real assets, money, and time. That pays off for all of us.

ALP: What is your opinion of proactive data-gathering safety programs, such as FOQA and ASAP?

Blakey: One of the reasons I’m as enthusiastic about FOQA and ASAP as I am is that we are seeing real changes in training procedures, manuals, etc. These are tangible benefits that have made a difference, for example, in airports in terms of ATC procedures where we did not realize that some approaches were causing problems. FOQA and ASAP data can allow you to see a pattern.

The NTSB goes to ASAP from time to time and looks at those data.

The real issue is, though, can we elevate this information so that we can spot trends on a national basis. That’s what we really want to move toward. I think ALPA has been very helpful on this.

Sturgell: When you get to a safety level with as few accidents as we have now, you know you need to improve on only a limited number of things, like fuel-tank inerting and some other things you have learned from the past. But to get that rate down lower, you have to identify things in advance, and that’s where the data are important.

FOQA identified a tailstrike issue and also a flap-overspeed issue. If that kind of information is spread out more nationally and combined with data from other carriers, then we might really start seeing improvements in reducing risks.

Blakey: The entire airline industry has to have a fundamental understanding that we are dead serious about the fact that this is protected information and that its purpose is aviation safety.

Sturgell: You talk about paying for itself—I think that is one thing that the carriers have realized, that this information pays for itself.

ALP: Your predecessor, Jane Garvey, launched the FAA’s Safer Skies program in 1997. ALPA has been very active in the CAST process that resulted from that program. What do you see as the most important tasks for Safer Skies during your term as FAA Administrator?

Blakey: Part of it is to stay the course. One of the problems in government is that there’s too much switching around. A new Administration comes in, and we have to reinvent everything. I don’t believe in that. I think a lot of hard work has gone into a number of the FAA’s program commitments, and we’re going to see them through to implementation.

Part of my role is to make sure that both sides understand the nuances and positions that are being advocated respectively and to help each other work through those differences.
—Robert A. Sturgell, FAA Deputy Administrator

We also need to do ongoing analysis as to what the benefits are. What are we seeing that has really made a difference?

Sturgell: Safer Skies is going to be reflected in the strategic plan, and it’s going to remain a priority.

ALP: To what extent do you communicate with your Canadian counterpart, Merlin Preuss, Transport Canada’s Director General of Civil Aviation?

Blakey: He has been a valued colleague in terms of looking at both safety issues and overall management of the North American skies, if you will, from the standpoint of air traffic control. We are working together also with our counterparts in Mexico to create as much consensus as possible, to where we’re going with air traffic management as well as working out any issues that arise between us from a safety standpoint.

This all actually began with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). We have worked through most of the technical and organizational issues; in fact, it has all gone extremely smoothly.

What we’re doing now is looking at how can we take what we’ve learned and share it effectively with the rest of our Central and Latin American counterparts, really creating a Western Hemisphere approach to both safety standards as well as to air traffic control.

ALP: Our impression is that one of the biggest issues south of the U.S. border has been the problem with English not always being used as the language of air traffic control, even in IFR operations involving airliners. How do the agency and the United States government deal with trying to change the linguistic situation in Latin America?

Blakey: You are focusing on an issue that remains challenging. We’ve had a major step forward in that the International Civil Aviation Organization has very recently taken a position that English is the language of air traffic control and that it therefore must be used by controllers and pilots throughout the globe. We need to do everything possible to reinforce that, because it is a major affirmation of where the system is going and will eventually go.

Having been in Alaska very recently, listening to a great deal of the ATC discussions back and forth between controllers and pilots, I can say that this is not an issue that is limited to Latin America. In Alaska, all the controllers, of course, are using English, but there are language challenges for some of the pilots coming in from abroad. It’s an ongoing thing to work on, but I think we’re making progress.

ALP: Transport Canada has mandated that airlines and other aviation entities, such as maintenance facilities, have a safety management system (SMS). Proponents here in the United States assert that SMS is a necessary component in reaching the government/industry objective of achieving the very low airline accident rate set as a goal for 2008—i.e., that FOQA and ASAP should be the tools for measuring the success of an SMS and provide feedback to improve it. Has the FAA examined the SMS concept? If so, do you envision mandating SMS for U.S. airlines and other aviation organizations, such as repair stations?

Blakey: We’re very interested in what Transport Canada is doing with SMS and in the principles behind SMS. From everything I know of their approach—and we’ll be learning more about it—it’s very compatible with the way the FAA sees the need for a system safety approach, with analysis, etc., as a fundamental principle. The program that we have put in effect to oversee the 10 major U.S. carriers, ATOS [the Air Transportation Oversight System], is a safety approach that the FAA has been working on for quite a long while. Of the 10 participating carriers, several have adopted the ATOS analytic tools to conduct their own safety audits.

So, while we are very much interested in what Canada is doing, we also have a program that is up and running with a great deal of momentum right now. I think we need to watch and see how these develop. Certainly we should encourage each other, because the principles behind those programs are the same.

One key difference is that Canada’s approach is a regulatory one. Our ATOS carriers are voluntarily moving toward a system safety approach. You can debate the merits of that. On the whole, we at the FAA certainly like to see, where possible, a voluntary program. It allows us to move ahead quickly, because the rulemaking process itself can be long and drawn out. The size of our industry and the size of our airspace mean that establishing a system can take years and years to accomplish. That’s another difference: Canada does not have the same complexity when it is requiring a regulatory program.

Sturgell: Capt. Preuss has talked about the cultural change that is necessary with SMS, and I think that’s one of our biggest learning points. The culture change affects both the operator and our inspectors in that it’s a different way of doing business. Our plan is to move forward with ATOS. It’s a good approach.

ALP: Russell Chew was recently named chief operating officer of the FAA’s new performance-based Air Traffic Organization. When do you expect users of the U.S. NAS to see improvements resulting from this important appointment?

Blakey: I think they’ll be immediate. Given Russ’s long and strong experience in the industry, his knowledge of the operating environment of the carriers, and of real-world demands that are faced by pilots and the airlines, we’re going to see a number of recommendations and changes that are necessary in enhancing the air traffic organization. We’re going to have to give him a little time, because while the FAA has done a lot of planning, we are combining two major parts of the FAA’s organization, and that will take some time. I have no doubt that Russ is going to be a major contributor.

ALP: What’s been your biggest challenge to date as FAA Administrator? Your greatest reward?

Blakey: The biggest challenge, honestly, has been the difficulty that the airline industry has found itself in. Trying to steer the FAA in a way that is supportive of aviation and encourage the flying public to come back to aviation with the knowledge that they are going to be in an ever-more secure and safe system is a huge challenge. For the FAA to make the right choices—the right regulatory approach as well as the right programmatic choices as we’ve talked about today—is no easy task.

However, when you wake up in the morning, you know you are working in a field that makes a tremendous difference in the strength of our country, and our economy. It is a wonderful time to be engaged in this work, because you know it makes a difference. And you are working with really smart, tremendously technically skilled and dedicated people. One should never underestimate the capability of the FAA’s workforce. Because we have partners like ALPA, we are in pretty good shape to tackle all this.

ALP: Deputy Administrator Sturgell, with your airline piloting background, how do you see your role in helping the airline industry work with the FAA to accomplish what needs to be done?

Sturgell: Part of my role is to make sure that both sides understand the nuances and positions that are being advocated respectively and to help each other work through those differences. I think PRM—precision runway monitoring—is probably a good example. We’ve spent nine months now trying to move that program forward, and it’s involved a lot of work, a lot of interaction with ALPA, with the airports, with the international airlines, and with our own workforce, working through the various issues and making sure how one affects the other and trying to reach some agreement in some way that works.

In the long run, we need to find a better way to do those kinds of operational procedures. I don’t think that everybody realizes that the cost is about $20 million an airport, and a couple of controllers, and that’s money the FAA could spend on other projects.

It’s not all about me; Russell Chew, too, has an extensive airline background, and the Administrator and the Secretary of Transportation have put a good team in place, with Russ, [Associate Administrator for Air Traffic Services] Steve Brown, [Associate Administrator for Research and Acquisitions, and Director of Operational Evolution Staff] Charlie Keegan, [Assistant Administrator for System Safety] Chris Hart, and [Associate Administrator for Regulation and Certification] Nick Sabatini. They are all pilots. I think pilot issues on the senior level are well represented.

ALP: What do you think would most surprise your fellow airline pilots about being "inside" the FAA, instead of "outside"? What would you like to tell them, based on your new perspective from the 10th floor of 800 Independence Avenue?

Sturgell: There are two things. The first is that since being "inside," I’ve been surprised by the degree of consultation, teamwork, and interaction between ALPA and the FAA. When I was on the "outside," the FAA was always somebody we kept in front of us. We were skeptical and wary of the FAA. That could be traced to the FAA’s enforcement role, which is still there and has its place. But when you look at the other areas, ALPA is right there with the FAA, involved in CAST, RNP, a number of things at the cutting edge to improve the safety of the system.

That’s one of the things that a typical line pilot might not really appreciate unless he or she really gets involved in union activities.

The other thing from this perspective that I want people on the outside to know is that the people at 800 Independence Avenue are focused on the state of the airline industry at this point. We will always emphasize safety. As the Administrator pointed out, we need to do what we can do that is appropriate to help. I think that’s the role the FAA has not traditionally played. It means keeping our costs under control because of the declining trust funds. It means putting procedures in place that we can do now. Those are the kinds of things we’re trying to put in strategic planning, and with ALPA’s feedback, we’re improving that. I think it’s going to keep us focused over the next five years on the right things to do.