Saturday, August 13, 2011

Free the FAA

This article, Free the FAA, came across my desk today and I felt compelled to tell its author, through talking to my monitor, that almost everything related to air travel is a matter of air safety. Unionization gives workers the power to say no to unsafe working conditions or to refuse to sign off inadequately repaired aircraft, because the union can protect them from retribution. Disputes of any kind are a source of stress and intra-workforce friction, a documented factor in accidents. I don't think there is any community in the contiguous United States for which subsidized air service is an essential service, but if it were, the provision of such service would be a safety issue, because left to the free market, communities that the larger airlines found uneconomical to serve would be served instead by the sort of company that undermaintain and overinsure their aircraft, so that a hull loss results in an upgrade.

By Edward L. Glaeser THE FEDERAL Aviation Administration does a fine job at its main duty - making air travel safe. But it’s is also involved with a lot of things it shouldn’t be, from disputes about unionization to subsidies for rural airports. If Americans want to keep flying safely, Congress must free the FAA from obligations unrelated to preventing accidents. The agency got back to work recently after a two-week, politically charged shutdown that had nothing to do with safety. To continue some operations related to planning and maintaining airports, the FAA needed new authorization from Congress. But the Senate initially balked at a House plan that also capped "essential air service" subsidies to rural airports at $1,000 per passenger. Some Senate Democrats also opposed a House plan that, by reversing a pro-union ruling last year by the National Mediation Board, would make it harder for workers on airport projects to organize.

I'm not saying there aren't gross inefficiencies and waste in the FAA giving opportunities for cost savings without loss of function. It's a government body, and one attached to the very large government of a traditionally rich country, so that's to be expected. But it's very difficult to draw a circle around "safety" functions yet exclude some aspects of air travel oversight.


david said...

If the FAA is making regulations and investing in infrastructure, then it's trying to be both a referee and a player in the same game, and risks a conflict of interest: for example, the agency could be tempted to sacrifice safety to protect its investments.

Surely it would be even safer to have separate agencies regulating the industry and supporting it.

A Squared said...

I don't think there is any community in the contiguous United States for which subsidized air service is an essential service

Yes, you could make a rational case for air service being "essential" for some rural villages in Alaska, but it's a lot harder for the lower 48. An example of "essential" air service:

Subsidized flights to Athens and Macon, Georgia. 60 and 70 statute miles, respectively from the busiest passenger airport on the planet (by some measures) yet we pay a couple of million a year to provide those communities with air service to and from Atlanta

Rhonda said...

David: I'm curious what conflict there is between infrastructure and safety.

Could you provide a specific example where safety is sacrificed to protect an infrastructure investment, to enlighten me?

Aviatrix said...

David, the ops manager at my company is a co-owner, so buys the airplanes, decides what additional equipment to invest in, reaps the benefits of contracts successfully flown, and sets restrictions like designating certain airstrips as unapproved for our operations. I don't think that's a conflict of interest. Safety encompasses everything.

Aviatrix said...

Was there a time since the establishment of passenger air travel when the roads into these EAS communities were seasonal, treacherous or non-existant? I can see why EAS continues, but what is its historical foundation?

A Squared said...

EAS was instituted following the de-regulation of the airlines in the US in 1978. I can assure you that there were all-weather roads to Macon and Athens in 1978

david said...

Aviatrix - safety encompasses everything, but regulation doesn't. I didn't write the Highway Traffic Act in Ontario, but my actions still affect the safety of the roads.

If the FAA, for example, were to invest $200M in building new runways, there's a potential conflict with creating a new regulation that might force that work to be redone. If the FAA can save money by decommissioning VORs, then there's a potential conflict against creating regulations requiring land-based navaids as a backup to GPS.

I'm not saying that the FAA would abandon safety in either of these cases - I'm sure that its employees are very dedicated to their work - but a system is broken if we allow even the potential for that kind of conflict. As I said before, in a soccer or hockey game, the referee can't be a player on one of the teams.

That's the same reason that the NTSB rather than the FAA investigates accidents in the US - in some cases, the NTSB will find that FAA employees, regulations, or actions contributed to an accident, and separating the investigation from the other parts makes it easier to avoid the temptation to downplay that part.

Aviatrix said...

The FAA's job,just like my Ops Manager's is to balance the available budget to create the safest, most efficient environment possible for air transport. The very fact that safety, cost and efficiency is why they need to be in one agency. Can you imagine the mess if they were three separate agencies competing for budgets?

david said...

Aviatrix: do you think it would be right for food companies, for example, to be allowed to write all their own food-safety regulations? I don't doubt that they work hard to "balance the available budget to create the safest, most efficient [food] environment possible", but we still expect them to follow regulations written by someone (e.g. Health Canada) who doesn't stand to lose or benefit directly from those regulations.

If the FAA were solely an infrastructure agency, they would be similar to your Ops Manager. allocating resources as best they can to meet safety and efficiency goals. Note, however, that your Ops Manager isn't allowed to (re)write the CARS.

Aviatrix said...

The food companies don't write the food safety laws, and neither do the airlines, although in many cases the air carriers set internal policy more rigid than the law requires, because the mere letter of the law doesn't provide the level of safety they require.

david said...

Aviatrix: I think we're at risk of debating at each-other instead of with each other, so let's step back and see if we understand each-other's arguments, even if we decide not to agree.

Your argument, as I understand it, is that aviation regulations shouldn't be created in isolation like more-general laws are, but rather, should be part of an organic whole that also includes infrastructure spending and supporting industry health, and that a single agency with responsibility for all three is best placed to find the optimal balance.

I've already written my point in my own words, so I won't repeat it - I'd be interested to know how you understood it, though.

Anonymous said...


You are wrong. She is not......

(FAA Employee, for now)

PS. google "get the flick" for more info on some of this info. A very good blog. Don (author) knows what he is speaking of.

Aviatrix said...

I don't think any laws should be written in isolation. Seatbelt and helmet laws are written by the same government that has to fund emergency services and medical care. Highway safety is achieved through construction, research, driver education, regulations regarding the way we behave on our highways and enforcement of those regulations. It's true that sometimes speed limits or placement of speed zones are set to raise ticket revenues rather than to optimize safety, but I don't think that jeopardizes safety.

You are worried about the FAA profiting from aviation through ticket taxes and therefore protecting its revenue stream by allowing unsafe practices? That seems less of an argument to separate the functions of the FAA than it is an argument to have ticket taxes go into and FAA funding come out of US Government general revenue. I apologize for my ignorance on whether or not that is already the case.

david said...

LT: interesting blog link. I read the first five or six postings, though, and didn't see anything about this topic.

Aviatrix: did I summarize your argument correctly? I believe that I can't be sure I really understand someone else's argument until I can paraphrase it in my own words, without interjecting any of my own views.

david said...

Also, to head off any confusion, I don't agree with Glaeser's conclusions in the article. Ironically, he conflates three different propositions, exactly the kind of conflation of concerns that he's criticizing in the FAA. Here's my attempt to untangle his three propositions:

- Glaeser #1: for a single agency, the FAA's scope is too broad (it would have been better if he hadn't misused the overly-broad word "safety", but otherwise, I agree)

- Glaeser #2: the FAA's revenue from the airlines shouldn't be based on the cost of a ticket, but rather, the nature of the operation (I'm entirely neutral on this point)

- Glaeser #3: the FAA's spending should not include subsidies for airports or other aviation operations (I disagree with this as a blanked statement, though I acknowledge that perhaps some programs are less useful than others, and it doesn't hurt to reevaluate them from time to time)

It's worth comparing the situation in Canada, where what Glaeser refers to vaguely as "safety" - more accurately, operation of the system - is in the hands of Nav Canada, while licensing, regulation (CARS etc.) and subsidies (the National Airports Policy) are in the hands of Transport Canada. I don't believe that air travel in Canada is less safe because of this separation of concerns, but I need to look for more information on that point.

If I were to reform the FAA, I wouldn't simply eliminate everything the agency does that's not related to regulations or The System (as Glaeser would like), but rather, I'd spin off operations (ATC, navaids, etc.) into a separate operating agency, and might also go a step further than Canada and also spin subsidies and industry support (e.g. funding for airport improvements and the Essential Air Service) into a separate agency.

With this division, each agency -- regulation, operations, and financial support -- would be free to pursue its own goals with its own budget. Of course, they'd all be working under the direction of the Department of Transportation, which would retain over-all responsibility for safety.

Aviatrix said...

Been away, didn't get your message til now, David.

"aviation regulations shouldn't be created in isolation like more-general laws are"

- I don't believe any regulations should be created in isolation but rather the whole system should be geared to tend towards the effect intended by the regulations. I don't think that was part of my original point, but there it is.

"an organic whole that also includes infrastructure spending and supporting industry health, and that a single agency with responsibility for all three is best placed to find the optimal balance."

- nah, I wasn't arguing for any particular division or unity of the FAA functions, just objecting to the notion that there is any decision or function related to aviation that is safety-neutral.