FAA administrator-designate (and current acting administrator) Robert “Bobby” Sturgell faced the Senate Commerce Committee for his confirmation hearing today, fielding harangues and questions from skeptical senators but offering little in the way of changes he would make at the FAA.
Sturgell is a former naval aviator (and Top Gun instructor), commercial airline pilot, aviation lawyer, and National Transportation Safety Board adviser. Prior to being named acting administrator in 2007, he served for four years as Marion Blakey’s deputy administrator. In his opening statement, Sturgell praised the FAA’s safety record as the best in the world, touted his financial management of the agency, discussed his plan to recruit new air traffic controllers, and implement the NextGen ATC modernization program. At the hearing, chaired by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the senators queried him on a variety of topics, which I’ll break down one by one after the jump.
Air Traffic Controller Recruitment, Retention, and Retirement
Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who has now placed a hold on the nomination, sparred with Sturgell over the retirement of a number of controllers, especially the cohort hired en masse after Ronald Reagan fired the striking controllers in 1981. In 2007, 820 controllers retired, well over the 700 projected. The FAA revised its projections upward for 2008 to 800 retirements. Lautenberg shot back that retirements in 2007 were well over 1,600, but Sturgell rejected that figure. (Lautenberg spoke again at the end of the hearing and raised the point again. He also distinctly called Sturgell “Mr. Sturgis” at one point.)
Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked: “What does the FAA consider an acceptable work schedule for controllers?” Sturgell replied that controllers are limited to an eight-hour day (with two hours of possible overtime), no more than six days per week. Boxer seemed to think that this schedule would fatigue controllers too much, but Sturgell did not take the bait and maintained that the schedule is a reasonable max.
Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) brought up an incident in which 4,000 FAA employees were sent an e-mail notifying them that they might be laid off on March 1 if Congress did not extend the temporary appropriation or pass the FAA funding bill it neglected to finish last session. “This is my most immediate concern at the FAA,” said Sturgell. Rockefeller promised that it was Congress’s fault, not the FAA’s, and pledged to work with the Senate Finance Committee to pass a more stable emergency funding bill. Rockefeller also asked about FAA employee morale, which Sturgell artfully dodged.
Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked about what the FAA was doing to retain controllers. Sturgell responded that some attrition is due to those who fail out of the training program, but neglected to get at the heart of the question, rather arguing that controllers enjoy good pay, benefits, and retirement options. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), late of the McCaskill-Bond amendment, asked if controller fatigue was an issue in what she argued was an alarming number of runway incursions. Sturgell replied that the National Transportation Safety Board has ID’d fatigue as contributing to a few incidents, but that controllers’ schedules are not too rigorous and that their alertness depends on how they spend their time off.
Airline Consolidation and Mergers
Several senators were keen to quiz Sturgell on this subject. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) both said that consolidation is likely to reduce competition in small communities. Sturgell replied to both that “the FAA is focused on operational issues” like certification and that competition issues are handled by other agencies. Snowe pressed the point with respect to flight caps at JFK, arguing that people in small communities “deserve” access to major airports. Can Mainers be assured they won’t be neglected under flight caps? Not my issue, Sturgell demurred.
Consumer Issues: The “Passengers’ Bill of Rights”
Both Boxer and Snowe brought up their proposed passengers’ bill of rights. Boxer said that if the FAA is planning to preempt state PBORs, it should set its own “minimum standards” for food, drink, access to fresh air and working lavatories, and the ability to deplane during extended ground delays. She asked Sturgell if an FAA rule would include minimum standards. His reply in a word? No. Snowe said that for the amount travelers pay, they don’t get much in the way of customer service. (Not true, really; fares are historically low, so they get what they pay for; moreover, passengers aren’t really upset with the levels of service.) Anyway, Snowe asked why states shouldn’t enact their own PBORs. Sturgell brought up “preemption issues,” which Snowe batted away with an odd locution: “The time has come; it’s long past overdue” for reforms.
On another front, Thune called for better reporting of airline consumer problems.
Delays and Air Traffic Control Modernization
Several senators had comments on delays. Thune said, oddly, that factors leading to delays are controllable because weather patterns are predictable. For example, winter is always snowy in South Dakota. I suppose, then, that airline schedulers can always predict exactly when a summer thunderstorm will hit New York City? Yeah, didn’t think so.
In response to a query from Klobuchar (she was the best at actually asking questions; for most of the others, a question was a pretext for a declamation), Sturgell said that even though 100 flights will be added at JFK this summer, since they’re being added to non-peak hours, modeling shows a 10 to 15 percent reduction in delays at the New York hub. “I don’t like caps,” he added, arguing that the nation should move forward in expanding air traffic capacity (adding runways, funding NextGen, etc.). Unfortunately, no one asked him to point out what exactly the FAA has done during his tenure that has had a significant effect in expanding capacity. It would be nice to have some specifics.
Lautenberg asked some questions about the cost of the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia airspace redesign. How much is it costing? $53 million over ten years, said Sturgell. And the benefits? Sturgell replied that it would reduce delays in the area by 20 percent and save $300 million. Over what time period? asked Lautenberg. Sturgell thought annually, but didn’t know.
Boxer asked why the FAA isn’t accurately reporting the number and details of runway incursions. Sturgell replied, “We can always do better . . . but we’re doing a pretty good job.” McCaskill read a long list of near close calls, describing her “horrible fear that something tragic and dramatic is going to happen.” Sturgell replied that the FAA handles 62 million operations per year and that safety is at record heights. He argued that incursions have increased and will increase next year due to the adoption of a more stringent ICAO standard. He also threw pilots into a turbine, so to speak, describing a situation in which a controller reads a direction correctly, a pilot reads it back correctly, and then proceeds to do something different (see here).
Lautenberg read from the November 2007 Government Accountability Office report on the subject and concluded that the FAA is allowing an unacceptable level of near-accidents.
And . . . Ted Stevens
Ranking member Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) kicked things off, but I needed to save the best remarks for last. He had the entire audience tittering. First, he told a long story about a time his flight was delayed because the crew was en route from another airport. “The FAA has not worked out a system to make sure crews are present,” he said. (Because that’s the agency’s job?) We should ensure flights are crewed and fueled “before they take off,” he added. (Never thought that an unmanned, unfueled plane would be able to take off. Learn something new every day.) He also floated a novel theory: that delays are related to crews living in one part of the country but flying out of another part. Seriously? This is the aviation version of “the Internet . . . it’s a series of tubes.”
In the end, Sturgell seemed content to continue the policies of his predecessor Blakey. One wants to root for him after enduring such a ridiculous hearing, but as Senator Thune commented, “an acceptance of mediocrity” does seem to exist in U.S. aviation. Sturgell is surely a competent administrator, but the Bush administration is too eager to hold up his formidable credentials as a substitute for fresh thinking on aviation. The FAA has clearly been plagued by a lack of foresight in handling controller retirements, and its continual “rebenchmarking” of NextGen strains its credibility. And Sturgell has been at the agency, in the number two position, all this time. I object to the (seriously NIMBY) vitriol directed at Sturgell over the airspace redesign, but the FAA and U.S. aviation in general would be better served by an administrator more innovative and forward-thinking and less beholden to the way things have been for so long at the FAA.