I got an email from a reader the other day who angrily opined that the shutdown of the FAA--via Congress's lack of funding renewal--was the best thing that could have happened. Well, nearly the best, he continued. Even though 4,000 FAA employees were temporarily out of work, it would have been better yet had that number quadrupled. The FAA, he said, was a massive government entity that was wholly unnecessary.
This is, of course, nonsense. But the email contained a couple of implications with which I agree.
First, efficiency in the new economy is more critical than ever. If one person can do the work of three and still get home in time for dinner and to coach third base at his kid's Little League game, then one is the right number. With the FAA, however, I'm not sure it's an overstaffing problem we're seeing. Ask yourself, is having one fewer air traffic controller in the cab really the best idea? Is having half the number of certification personnel on hand to get the latest Gulfstream rolled out (and workers employed and dividends paid) really a smart economic move?
The other thing I agree with is that top heavy organizations, be they government or corporate, don't work very well in general, as employees quickly lose any sense of self determination, which is a great loss, as believing in your ownership of hte endeavor is key to keep any organization growing and thriving.
Here the FAA does suffer. Despite its decade long love affair with the terminology of the private sector, giving its employees "ownership" of their part of the "business," the feds really aren't fooling anybody because it doesn't work. In the private sector, employees innovate because there's something in it for them. Not so with government. When I call Cessna to get a photo or a quote or a source, I hear back from them usually within the hour. With the FAA? Well, not so much. I still have a few questions posed to media specialists from 1997 for which I'm awaiting reply. The fact that I've forgotten what the questions are is a major triumph for the system. Not to mention the fact that the FAA personnel to whom I asked the question have long since retired. You see, the system works.
Such inertia shouldn't surprise anyone, however. When trying to help somebody, the only thing that can happen if you take a chance is something bad. Like getting in trouble. So, the longer you take in responding, the more approvals you get before anyone gets an answer, the more distance you create between yourself the outcome, the better it is for you. It really has nothing to do with customer service. It's not about the customers.
We see this all the time in regulation. Let's say you have a bad rule, like the one requiring all private pilots to have a third class medical. It had been that way for decades before I got my student pilot ticket in 1976, and it probably won't change soon. Not because there's any connection between safety and the third class medical but because the guy or gal who changes the rule to something more sensible is taking a terrible chance with their career.
There are several other huge problems with the FAA that I'd need volumes to address in sufficient detail.
But the problem is not with the organization's existence. We need controllers and examiners and inspectors and administrators and investigators and construction workers and engineers. Aviation is an incredibly complex endeavor, and the advent of more and better automation and more elaborate schemes to increase capacity and improve efficiency will stretch the FAA's ability to supply services and grown the infrastructure to the breaking point unless we start addressing those needs now. This is a point, sadly, that none of lawmakers in Washington seem to have taken to heart.
As much as there are problems with the FAA and its culture--and there are serious problems, problems that need to be addressed and fixed--the organization's basic mission--to give structure to this remarkable phenomenon we call modern aviation--is needed more today than ever. To misunderstand this basic fact is to misunderstand the nature of what aviation is in 2011 and to fail to imagine what it will be in 2050.