"What’s Coming Up"
Robert A. Sturgell, Washington, D.C.
November 24, 2008

Aero Club

Good afternoon, and thank you, Susan [Sheets]. I want to begin by thanking the President, Secretary Mineta, Secretary Peters and Marion Blakey for the opportunity they gave me. It’s been an honor and a privilege to have worked with these great mentors and leaders.

Looking back on this year, there’s a story that bears repeating. I remember one of my first memories as acting administrator — it may have been the first week or the first month, when the phone rang and I was asked to come to the White House to brief President Bush. Everyone was saying, “Hey, how cool is that?” And I thought, I think the answer to that question is really a function of why the phone is ringing.

Not long after that, the Post ran a feature that included a picture of me with my son Ben at lacrosse practice. Ben is 6 and has two speeds:  full power and off. His afterburner is lit the moment he opens his eyes. When I got home, Ben was waiting for me at the door with a copy of the Post in his hands. “Dad, look,” he said. “Our picture is in the paper. We’re famous.” 

“Ben,” I said, “It’s not always a good thing to have your picture in the paper.” 

Ben’s fame notwithstanding, a lot of things have happened in a year. It’s been a year of highs and lows. We opened three runways last week, celebrated our 50th anniversary and won the Collier Trophy. And we also made our way through some tough spots with Southwest Airlines and the MD-80.

Even still, as one of my favorite persons is fond of saying, facts are a stubborn thing. And the fact is, the safety record speaks for itself. We’ve been well over two years without a large commercial transport crash. This literally and figuratively is the safest period in the history of aviation — maybe in all of transportation. This has gone largely unnoticed, but I suppose that allegations like “The system is hanging by a thread” or “FAA too cozy with industry” makes a much better headline than “Dog Does Not Bite Man.” Obviously, the system is not perfect and we need to continuously adjust our oversight to match an industry in change. We can’t be complacent or satisfied with past accomplishments. But with that said, an independent review team not only ratified our approach to system safety, they saluted us for it. The record itself is a testament to our collaboration and partnership efforts with the industry. That interaction must not only be allowed to continue but to also grow. It’s the only way we can continue to improve on our safety record.

On the congestion front, this summer, we focused on chronic delay issues. At the same time we increased operations at its three major airports, we reduced the long delays in New York — the one- and two- hour types that drive everyone crazy. Again, I’m not saying that things are perfect, but progress was made. Thanks to some operational and procedural steps we took with the airlines in the New York area, the summer of 2008 was significantly better than the summer before. According to the MITRE numbers, the delays of two hours or more are indeed down by as much as 35 percent.

We will continue to reduce delays in New York, but with respect to the operation, one of our toughest issues is managing expectations. Everybody has to have realistic expectations. The actual numbers of operations an individual airport can sustain hour after hour has got to be the starting point in any discussion and have to be considered in the context of the interdependent and highly complex system, such as the airports and airspace in New York. You can't expect to see 120 operations per hour out of JFK, and I think we all know the cap at LaGuardia is too high. You can only run so many planes on two individual, intersecting runways.

Schedules predicated on a bright sunny day, everyday, are just flat out impractical. They create unrealistic expectations on the part of the passenger, and they create havoc anytime when weather hits. This is not a push for re-regulation, but I am saying very clearly that we are kidding ourselves if we think that the passenger’s just going to sit back and continue to take it. Frankly, not many believe the times printed on the ticket. Instead, people think they’ll get there sometime between 1 and 4, just like the cable guy.

So when delays affect the NAS broadly, the choice comes down to adjusting schedules, introducing new technology and procedures or laying pavement. For the latter, the cliché used to be that FAA couldn’t get runways off the ground. Well, in the last eight years, we’ve opened 16 of them at our major airports. These new runways provide the potential for almost two million more operations a year. We’ve got more coming, most prominent are projects at CLT and Philadelphia. With traffic down, we’re going to get a short-term reprieve on congestion, but as a nation, we must continue to build infrastructure — even though traffic is down and even while the environmental issues become more tough to address. And it will take local political leadership to get it done.

Another great sound bite that still persists is the “FAA can’t manage a program” or that we “haven’t been able to modernize the system in 25 years.” The facts are that we are off the GAO high risk list for financial management. We just got our eighth clean audit in a row, and this one without a material weakness. We’ve met our critical program goals four years in a row. We’ve successfully rolled out our major programs like TMA and ATOP — both of which are bringing huge capacity, efficiency and environmental benefits. ERAM is next — on budget and on schedule.

Finally, we’re dealing with claims like “NextGen won’t be here until 2025” or “NextGen’s just a slogan.” I think that talk comes to a halt today. Earlier, I spoke with before I came here, Hank Krakowski and Nick Sabatini. They were making a recommendation for ADS-B — that we move forward with an in-service decision. For those of you who don’t play inside baseball, “in-service decision” means “green light” on commissioning the system. Both Nick and Hank are pushing for a commissioning of ADS-B essential services in South Florida, where pilots flying in properly equipped aircraft will see similar displays of live traffic to what the controllers have.

In just a little more than a year following the ADS-B contract award, we’re in the position to give it the green light. On budget. On schedule. This decision clears the way for the installation of ground stations, and to transmit broadcasts for operational use across the nation. We’ll start on both coasts and portions of the Midwest. 310 ground stations are scheduled to be operational by 2010.

At the same time, we’re setting up key sites for ADS-B testing for surveillance. We’re going to use the Gulf of Mexico, Philadelphia, Juneau and Louisville. And once the test is completed, we follow closely at additional key sites, like New York.

By 2013, we’ll have 794 ground stations to complete the deployment, covering everywhere that you find radar today. And also in places like the Gulf and the mountains of Alaska, where there is no radar coverage.

I said a moment ago that the critics contend that NextGen is a slogan. This is the order to accept the system — to commission it. Vinny Capezzuto’s group has tested ADS-B ten ways from Sunday, and it works. The top safety expert, Nick Sabatini, says it’s a go. The COO is a former airline pilot, and he’s giving it thumbs up. Consider ADS-B operational on November 24, 2008, at 10:15 a.m.

So, we’ve done it on the ground with 16 runways. We’re doing it in the air with NextGen. The third leg of this stool is the people of the FAA, and I can say that I’ve never been more proud. From financial management to program management to HR, the controllers, technicians, engineers, inspectors — across the board — they are moving America safely and efficiently. And we’ve got a great, well-motivated new generation coming on board. To them, I say congratulations.

In closing, I’d like to make a few observations. The first is to resist the temptation to think that somehow, some way safety is red or blue. Safety is and needs to be by definition a non-partisan subject. An agency like the FAA has to be given the flexibility to exercise its regulatory judgment in the normal course of business to make risk-based decisions. It also needs to be able to make good use of taxpayer dollars when it comes to things like facilities and maximize safety and efficiency with airspace redesign. When safety becomes a political football, we all lose, and that includes the flying public.

And for the carriers and labor unions, we have fought long and hard for voluntary disclosure programs like ASAP. They are critical for us to continue to raise the level of safety. It’s disheartening to see some of our carriers and pilot unions abandoning these programs at a time when we need them the most. I encourage you to separate safety from the labor issues and put these programs back in place. The data we gather from them is critical.

Second, the contract with controllers union has really been a bone of contention, and unfortunately has colored the media’s portrayal of labor/management relationships at the FAA, which include three recent voluntary agreements. That said, it’s been well over two years, and we’ve hired over 5,000 new controllers under the new contract. We have thousands of applications for what are still among the highest paid jobs in government. We ended the year 251 over our staffing goal, and the training is progressing. Both Congress and the IG were previously very critical of our ops cost growth and we simply could not afford the old contract. We made tough decisions to control our cost growth, control our programs, to operate more like a business, to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.

We subsequently made three handsome settlement offers, each of which was rejected. We have won all the legal battles. We have bargained in good faith and we followed the law. The differences were simply too great to overcome. If the contract is to be revisited, whatever changes may come, it will be a zero sum game. Especially in today’s economic environment. The money will come from the airport, NextGen or ops accounts. Ultimately, that flows to the users and the taxpayer. As an aviation professional, I have complete respect for our controller workforce. It’s my hope that both sides can reach common ground, but it will take both sides to get there.

Finally, in the midst of the economic turmoil, I’d ask you to believe in the resiliency of aviation. As of about a month ago, 35 airlines have gone out of business since the turn of the century — eight in the past year. It looked like gas prices were going to crush this business. After 9/11, many were thinking we’d never be back. But in both cases, aviation found a tail wind and survived. Make that flourished. I see more of the same in the future. And while the FAA must fulfill its roles as regulator and air navigation service provider, the rest of you need to promote and support this industry that so substantially drives our country and its economy. I want to thank the industry, the Congress, and the FAA employees for their support. It’s been an honor and a privilege to have been along for the ride. Thank you, and God bless America.

See video of the Aero Club speech.