Marion C. Blakey, Washington, D.C.
September 11, 2007
Aero Club of Washington, D.C.
Good afternoon, and thank you, Paula [Hochstetler]. You know, in the last days of my tenure, it’s wonderful to look around this room and see so many colleagues and friends, so many people I want to say thank you to. I owe much of this audience a great deal — sage counsel, hard work, endless briefings, candid advice — as I say, I’m very grateful for a period of government service I wouldn’t take anything for. And then there are a few folks behind the scenes I want to thank as well — my husband Bill and my daughter Mona, who joins us today from college in Madison, Wisconsin, and my sister, Leslie Blakey. We all know the support of your family means everything. And right there next to Mona is David Mandell, our former chief of staff and responsible for a lot of our high energy and good ideas back in the early days. There are so many here I’d like to recognize and thank, but let’s turn to the occasion at hand.
You know, there are anniversaries of many things — and then there’s 9/11. Whether we’re six or sixty years out, it will always be one of those rare points on the calendar — much like December 7th — when you stop for a moment and remember. You pause, remember where you were, and think of the victims, the families, and the heroes.
That’s a day that changed aviation. That’s a day that changed us all.
And, of course, we’re only two days away from my own personal anniversary, five years at the FAA. And my oh my, how things have changed in five years, which is what brings us all here today.
Speaking of anniversaries, I’ve got another one for you. We’re nine days past the anniversary of the launch of the ATM. Now only in this audience would I find people who are thinking Air Traffic Management — but no, the Automatic Teller Machine was born 38 years ago in New York City, September 2, 1969. Most of us are old enough to know that the phrase “banker’s hours” wasn’t so funny. You had to make sure you had cash before 3 o’clock, or before the weekend, or the holiday. Not anymore. Today, there are more than 170 million Americans over 18 with an ATM card. The average card is used six times a month. The heaviest use comes on Fridays. They’re everywhere: the gas station, the cruise ship. We’re shocked when we can’t find one. But, by the way, if you find yourself a little short while in Antarctica, there’s an ATM at McMurdo Station. At least that’s what I’m told.
Let’s face it, before ATMs, the word PIN was a reference to your grandma’s sewing kit. I do remember a bit of resistance to the ATM, but I suppose it went the way of the resistance to the microwave, the PC, the Internet, or, I guess, the outhouse. Change is a good idea.
Aviation is undergoing a similar revolution. Today is the anniversary of the catalyst of what could be the biggest change in aviation — maybe the biggest change in how Americans live, now that I think about it. We went from full-stop — everything on the ground — to record delays just six years later. Aviation is back, and, let’s face it, America has shown an incredible ability to adapt to the changes that helped aviation rebound.
When the new millennium dawned, none of us would have believed we’d need to remove articles of clothing in a public place like the airport. We would’ve been aghast at the notion of putting our personal toiletries in clear plastic bags for all to inspect. Removing shoes and standing next to an X-ray machine was something that only happened in emergency rooms.
But not any more. When Kip Hawley stood here a month or so ago, he referenced 18 layers of security. Not all that long ago, I doubt that most of us thought about anything more than one. But change is indeed here. With security, we have agreed as a nation not to resist change. In fact, we expect everyone to be part of it. When the announcement in the airport, or on the Metro, or at Union Station says be on the lookout for suspicious packages, we do it. And we don’t like it when others don’t.
Right now, I’m guessing that a few of you are wondering why the talk of change when the temptation for someone in my shoes is to be taking a victory lap? Well, let’s take a look.
I’m very proud of what we at the FAA and as an industry have accomplished in five years. This is the golden age of safety, the safest period in the safest mode in the history of the world. As bullet points on our collective resume go, that’ll do. The launch of the FAA’s Flight Plan proved to be an idea that got better and better as the years have gone by. By linking this strategic plan to pay, we have gotten buy-in from employees in a way that’s rare in government. By asking the aviation community to help us focus our efforts, we created a list of just 30 goals. That makes resources much easier to manage. We’re operating more like a business, and we have the accounting system in place to prove it. Our major capital investments drew finger-wagging editorials back in the 1990s. Now, our major capital investments are 98.5 percent on time and 100 percent on budget. We got a shot in the arm when GAO took us off its high-risk list for financial management. That was one of those things you want to happen, but it’s like asking Santa for a Cadillac. Some things just don’t fit in a sleigh.
Internationally, we’ve never been stronger. In the past five years, we’ve signed nine bilateral aviation safety agreements, and we have three more in the pipeline. We’ve opened offices in New Delhi, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, and we are working on one for Brasilia. We’ve provided technical assistance to more than a hundred countries and we are forging lasting partnerships to expand the benefits we expect from NextGen. We’re setting the pace for the planet, and that’s a tremendous accomplishment. Being the gold standard for aviation is an enviable place to be.
But even with all that, the challenges that remain on the table are far more pressing than the need for me to stand here and talk about how well things have gone. These five years have been a time of achievement, but unless we take care of business, much of this won’t matter. Aviation is at the place where America stood before the creation of the ATM. The old way of doing business doesn’t cut it. We’ve got a new idea on the table that looks different, feels different, and it’s going to require a new paradigm, new financing, new concepts of operation. And the consequences are far greater than running out of cash on a long weekend. If you don’t stand up and become part of the solution, you’ll be one of those few people who think that standing in line at the bank is a mark of pride.
So what do I see as the challenges? In the short term, the FAA’s recent Call for Action was a line in the sand that said enough is enough when it comes to runway safety. Even though serious runway incursions have dropped 55 percent since 2001, the number has stubbornly plateaued in the last three years. These are very serious accidents waiting to happen that we can do something about. No question, the increase in lesser, more technical violations is a warning sign. Our Call to Action meeting last month ended with everyone agreeing to make major changes within 60 days. Airports are already on the way to meeting new regulatory requirements to update their runway markings. But we're asking them to speed up their schedules for these projects. Airlines will enhance simulator training for operations on the airport. And we’re going to improve taxi clearances.
And the FAA with our controllers union is committed to putting in place an ASAP program for controllers so that we have the benefits of voluntary reporting of incidents in the control room, just like airlines do in the cockpit.
Also in the short term, the redesign of airspace is a critical deliverable. In New York and New Jersey, we’re talking about a process that’s been ten years in the making. We have a workable solution, a solution that will cut delays by 20 percent and reduces noise for 600,000 people.
But even with all the near-term operational and procedural steps factored in, I predict passengers will continue to be fed up with delays, and that’s got to be taken more seriously by our airlines. No, you can’t control Mother Nature, and our air traffic control system I’ll address in a minute, but airlines can control their own schedules. Competitive pressures or no, an airline’s on-time performance increasingly matters and will be under increasing scrutiny.
To be clear, the airlines need to take a step back on the scheduling practices that are at times out of line with reality. Passengers are growing weary of schedules that aren’t worth the electrons they’re printed on. Airline schedules have got to stop being the fodder for late night monologues. And if the airlines don’t address this voluntarily, don’t be surprised when the government steps in. Drawing down the schedule at Chicago was not my happiest hour, but it could come to that on the East Coast as well.
I also think that our business jet and GA partners need to take a step in the right direction — to be part of the solution. It’s time to face up to the fact that your practices need to change as well. Flying to and from wherever you want whenever you want is not a free utility. You need to expect to pay for it. The other users shouldn’t have to pay your freight and on your timetable.
The long-term challenges are no less compelling. The environment makes this list, and rightfully so. While aviation represents less than three percent of the carbon footprint, we need to do more to reduce what’s already a small number. Built into the heart of NextGen is a comprehensive approach to managing all the environmental impacts of aviation growth. We are developing better air traffic procedures now and have proposals to enhance technology and use alternative fuels. We need to go about it in a smart, effective way with a broad coalition of our international partners at our side. For example, Commission Vice President Jacques Barrot and I announced at the Paris Air Show in June a plan to accelerate our major air traffic control initiatives NextGen and SESAR, to develop greener transatlantic flights faster over the next two years.
Internationally, it’s clear that no “one size fits all” approach will be effective. What’s even more clear is that countries around the world agree with us: Unilateral imposition of an emissions trading systems is a non-starter. Hopefully, we can all find a way forward at the ICAO Assembly next week that will foster effective action and not enrich lawyers.
And finally, to what I think is the challenge that’s a linchpin for all the others. NextGen is aviation’s ATM. For those of you who’ve joined us late, in this case, ATM is not a reference to air traffic management. Just like the launch of the ATM in 1969, The Next Generation Air Transportation System isn’t an idea for tomorrow. The blueprints are printed. The contracting is beginning, and if we don’t get it done, shame on us. That pronoun — we — starts at this podium and stretches all the way to the Hill, including the whole of the aviation community in between.
NextGen’s solution to the capacity issue is critical. We’re already moving quickly. The ADS-B contract award to ITT last week put in place the commitment to acquire ground infrastructure. The NPRM that lays out the standards and minimal requirements for equipage will be released at the end of the month — no mean feat.
But the challenges as I see it are clear and real. First, the FAA. I’d tell my great partner and friend Bobby Sturgell, our acting administrator, you’ve got your work cut out for you. The FAA must be rock solid in its commitment to performance-based technology and procedures like RNAV and RNP. It needs to stay the course on the Operational Evolution Partnership — the OEP — to save fuel and reduce delays. And it needs to be unwavering in its pursuit of the NextGen arm-in-arm with the aviation community.
Second, the airlines and all the operators in our system are going to have to embrace the change involved. Regrettably, ours is a world in which we wait for the other guy to step up, and then maybe we will, too. We need to stop the phenomenon in aviation of running to the back of the line. Let’s see a push to be among the first to equip. And the FAA needs to make sure that the benefits, the rewards, for doing so accrue quickly and early. Aviation can no longer afford for the full-performance fleet to be the exception.
And the FAA and Congress face another challenge — the potential cost of operating the old system and NextGen at the same time. When you’re paying two mortgages, one for the technology of the 1960s and another for NextGen, things like ADS-B, SWIM, DataCom and all the other programs that make up NextGen, there’s just not enough money to go around. We need to step smartly through the transition. And that includes the hard reality that with the advent of NextGen technology and procedures, there simply is no need for the number of facilities we have in place today.
Those ATMs that I mentioned before, they can stand alone in a 7-11. There’s no need for a full-service bank when technology allows you to operate just as efficiently, and, I might add, safely. The internet is pushing the envelope. You’d be hard-pressed to find an E*Trade branch out there, because customers know you don’t need one. Bottom-line businesses recognize this. The taxpayer needs us to recognize this principle the same way.
And that’s where we are in aviation. Congress needs to accept a new paradigm. Not only is the technology in place to reduce the number of air traffic control facilities, but it offers major benefits in service and safety. Bottom line: the taxpayer shouldn’t be expected to pay for a scenario that outdated technology once made mandatory. Let’s face it: we don’t have coal bins at home anymore because they’re just not needed. Congress must take the important step to recognize what businesses all over America already have: just because you’ve always had “X” number of buildings doesn’t mean that you still need “X.” It’s hard to talk about how tight money is when you’re paying for something that you no longer need. Change is a very good thing.
And in closing, all of this points to what may be the most critical challenge of all — the question of how do you pay for all of this? The FAA’s authorization runs out in 19 days. So when the last dollars in the Trust Fund are spent down by November, there won’t be enough money to run the system. We’ll be in the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario to make ends meet. Sure, there’s the prospect of short-term extensions, but they don’t fundamentally move us forward.
Failure to move forward on the reauthorization is a tacit acceptance of gridlock. Except this time, when the modernization programs lag behind, we’ll all know that it wasn’t mismanagement by the FAA that allowed it to happen.
And status quo legislation for a few years is much more risky than taking on the tough financing questions now and addressing the heart of the problem — the need for a stable, cost-based funding stream that allows for adequate, dependable investment in the NextGen.
This is a time of a new challenge, a new paradigm. It’s a time for everyone to move out of their corner, engage and get it done. The need for change is here. Aviation is being presented with something new, an ATM of its very own. The PIN for this is cooperation — recognizing and embracing change. Wait and see will not launch technology nor will it create a stable funding stream, a system that’s both cost-based and fair. I’m urging you to help get this done.
The United States is known as the land of the pioneers. It’s not surprising that the same pioneering spirit has made its way into aviation. We’ve pioneered aviation at every step of its evolution. It’s time for us all to step up again. We need to be the pioneer of a new paradigm. And now is the time to galvanize our collective energy. Thank you.