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Tue, Sep 12, 2023

White House Announces Vague Air Traffic Plan

$28-Billion for Nothing Discernable

The Biden administration has made public its intention to sink some $28-billion into as-of-yet unspecified technologies for purpose of mitigating, ostensibly, the alarming number of aircraft proximity-incidents (read near-misses) by which the U.S. air traffic management system has been plagued of late.

The ambiguous language in which the Biden White House has framed its intentions vis-à-vis the vast sums taxpayer dollars salient to its mysterious plan is at once deeply worrying and eminently emblematic of the constancy with which the Department of Transportation under Biden appointee Pete Buttigieg has paid lip-service to but failed to address the nation’s air traffic management shortcomings.

By way of example, the Biden administration states it will “invest more money in aviation safety and consider requiring planes to be equipped with technology designed to prevent close calls around airports.”

The statement speaks compellingly to nothing whatsoever.

Biden’s DOT proposes to “invest” in:

  • “New safety measures, including automation to alert air traffic controllers about planes that are heading for the wrong runway.”
  • “…technology designed to prevent close calls around airports.”
  • “…outfitting more airports with radar systems that track the movement of planes on runways and taxiways…”
  • “…requiring systems that would alert pilots if they are lined up to land on the wrong runway, or a taxiway, or when the runway they have chosen is too short.”
  • “… FAA safety summits of industry officials.”

The administration’s quantification of its aspirations is staggering. In short, the $28-billion plan appears to comprise, primarily, the reinvention of the ILS approach; GPS; TCAS; GPWS, primary, secondary, and surface-movement radar surveillance systems; and numerous additional technologies in universal use for periods of time measurable in decades.  

Preliminary reports pertaining to several 2023 aircraft near-miss incidents ascribe blame for the sorry state of U.S. air traffic management to poorly-trained, under-motivated air traffic controllers. That the quality of air traffic control services provided by the FAA has declined precipitously since the turn of the millennium is undisputed. Hiring quotas, fear of litigation, an archaic thirty-year-old maximum hiring-age, and a training program that dissuades controllers from creative thinking and the novel solutions occasioned thereby has reduced a once formidable institution and its constituent fraternity of sharp-minded, steely-nerved professionals into an ineffectual enclave of stereotypically mediocre federal employees more-so inclined to monitor and manage their vacation days than the National Airspace System with which they’ve been entrusted.

A 1996 report set forth by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) began thus:

In light of the steady growth in air traffic operations and the failures of aging equipment in the air traffic control (ATC) system, the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) timely acquisition of new ATC equipment has become increasingly critical for aviation safety and efficiency.  FAA estimates that it will need $13-billion over the next seven-years to continue its modernization program.  However, persistent acquisition problems raise questions about the agency's ability to field new equipment within cost, schedule, and performance parameters.

“Concerned about recurring problems with FAA's acquisitions, the Chairman, Subcommittee on Transportation and Related Agencies, House Committee on Appropriations, asked GAO to review the agency's management of the acquisition process to (1) determine whether the organizational culture contributed to FAA's acquisition problems and (2) identify how FAA could improve its management of acquisitions through cultural change, if culture is a contributing factor.

The report determined:

GAO found that: (1) the FAA organizational culture has been an underlying cause of FAA acquisition problems; (2) employees' attitudes do not reflect FAA focus on accountability, coordination, or adaptability; (3) FAA acquisition officials make little or no mission needs analyses, set unrealistic cost and schedule estimates, and begin production before systems development and testing is completed; (4) FAA fails to enforce accountability for defining systems requirements or for contract oversight; (5) the hierarchical FAA structure fosters a controlling environment, diminishes employee empowerment, and impedes information sharing; (6) FAA operations and development divisions have separate and distinct lines of authority and communications, which impedes coordination; (7) FAA officials are resistant to making needed changes in their acquisition process because FAA culture rewards conservatism and conformity and discourages innovation; (8) recognizing its need to improve the acquisition process through cultural change, FAA implemented a reform effort based on cross-functional, integrated product teams, and introduced a new acquisition management system; (9) FAA believes the product teams will improve accountability and coordination and infuse a more mission-oriented focus into the acquisition process; and (10) FAA has approved only one product team plan because it is still having difficulty in gaining the strong commitment of all employees who have a stake in the acquisition process and in forging partnerships across organizational divisions.”

As 27-years have passed since the antecedent report was commissioned, completed, and relegated to obscurity, stakeholders in 2023’s aviation sector could make a compelling argument that a better use of $28-billion tax-dollars—certainly one more likely to up the quality and tenor of U.S. air transport infrastructure—is to distribute the cash amount equally amongst the U.S.’s large terminal airports, then burn the notes en masse at the approach ends of active runways. The resultant blazes would clearly mark—by daytime smoke and nighttime fire—appropriate landing zones, thereby cutting down on runway incursions and reminding pilots, air traffic controllers, and politicians alike that what is precious can be easily lost via the most unanticipated and senseless means.

FMI: www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GAOREPORTS-RCED-96-159/html/GAOREPORTS-RCED-96-159.htm

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