RAY SUAREZ: Millions of Americans will travel in the coming days and weeks on an airline system that is much changed over the last year. One of key people overseeing the safety and efficiency of the system is Marion Blakey, who became the head of Federal Aviation Administration just two months ago. She is the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and she joins us now.
MARION BLAKEY: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, one estimate I have read says about five million people will get on a plane in the next couple of days. Many of them aren't frequent flyers, what should they know about what's waiting for them?
MARION BLAKEY: Well, I think they have to expect that there's going to be a lot of security in the terminals when they go in. And they need to be prepared for that. You know, there are a few simples things we can all do-- and I have remind myself of this, too-- take off the jewelry and put it in your carry on, so you don't set off the metal detector when you go through; make sure you only have two carry-ons; they really don't allow more than that these days. And we all have to abide by those kinds of rules. For people who carry cell phones and other kinds of, you know, electronics, again, put them in the carry-on. It makes it go a lot smoother if you're not emptying out all of your pockets while everybody else is backing up there. So, those things help.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, there are trend lines that don't look very good as they converge: That added security that you mentioned; a sudden up-tick in the number of people flying; and fewer flights. A lot of the big carriers have cut back on their routes in the past year to save money.
MARION BLAKEY: Well, I think we have to remember that the airline industry is in financial trouble, and they have to as efficient a sis conceivable with their flights. And what that means, of course, is that we all should expect the flights are full. And from the standpoint of the health of the industry, I think we need to understand that and be supportive. There will be more people in the terminals--somewhat more, not a great deal, but somewhat this year--the number of flights is going to be about the same. In other words, tomorrow will be busy from an air traffic control standpoint, but not appreciably more takeoffs and landings than on a regular day.
RAY SUAREZ: And pick-up and drop- off is not going to be easy either?
MARION BLAKEY: Well, it depends on where you're going. And it's a good thing to know a little bit about your airport. One of the things I like to tell people to do is, go to the Web site. Take a look at what not only your airport says about their configuration and, you know, how parking is set up, but also go to the airlines. Make sure that you check to make sure whether there are delays or things to be advised about before getting there.
RAY SUAREZ: Before September 11, one of the big crises used to be managing tremendously heavy loads, and also traffic jams in the skies. Have the air traffic challenges of 2000, 2001 eased a little bit in this current down-tick in the use of airlines?
MARION BLAKEY: Well, I think you recall correctly. And we all remember summer of 2000, some of the holidays in 1999/2000 they were rough. And certainly, I think that we, from the standpoint of the FAA, have learned a lot about how to manage air traffic control, working collaboratively with airlines. We, at this point, spend a lot of time working with the airlines to look at the weather pattern, look at what we know about where runways may be closed or where there may be issues in terms of closures or problems in the system; and to manage the traffic flow all the way across the country with that in mind. Three years ago, that didn't really happen. But now, we're on the phone, every two hours in fact, with all the airlines, with their dispatchers, with our traffic control centers in our big towers all around the country saying, "Okay, how is it going?" "Where should be hold back some?" "Where we can we go ahead with the trough-put?" "What are we looking at, in terms of weather?" Because if we get forecast shared among all of us, then we can manage the system a lot better.
RAY SUAREZ: So, there is a little pad, a little give in the system so if there's bad weather in one part of the country tomorrow and Thursday, that doesn't necessarily have to be tumbling dominos?
MARION BLAKEY: That's right. Bad weather doesn't necessarily translate to flights delayed or cancelled. There is a significant amount we can done from a management standpoint. And that's what we're trying to do, to make sure that we're looking at where there's give in the system, or where we can hold back a little bit. But I think we all need understand, too, that the weather projections, particularly for the East Coast tomorrow, are such that we may be seeing some bad weather, and inevitably, we have to be patient when that happens.
RAY SUAREZ: But you will get where you're going eventually?
MARION BLAKEY: I think you can count on the fact that you'll get where you're going if we're all patient. The one other thing that I would say is, we need to remember that there has been a tremendous transformation in terms of screening at the airport. We've got a brand-new workforce out there. 44,000 people were brought on board this last year as a part of the federal screeners. But many of these people are new on the job. And this is going to be a stressful period during the holidays, with as many people that are going through the airports, and, as you say, a lot of many travelers that haven't traveled perhaps recently. So, we all need to be patient. Get there a little bit early and cut each other some slack in all of this.
RAY SUAREZ: Does the movement of some operations out of FAA and into the new Transportation Security Administration change your job and give you sort of new things to concentrate more heavily on?
MARION BLAKEY: Well, think one of the things that we can do so serve the public best, the foremost thing of course, is to look at the safety of system and look where we can make improvements. And we're working very hard, for example, on the issue of safety on our runways. One of the things that concerns me is the potential for an accident actually on the ground, because of planes coming too close to each other; even things like our baggage handling carts getting out on the runways. So, we're working very hard with both the technology up in the towers and out on the runways to improve that situation. So there's a lot from a safety standpoint that we're working to make what is really the safest system in the world right now even safer. But the other thing that I think is important when we look at the situation with the airlines is that even though the traffic and numbers of passengers has certainly been off this year, we see growth coming back, and we need the capacity to handle it. So at the FAA, one of the things that we're devoting our focus to is what kind of technology can we bring on board to modernize the air traffic control system so that we're going to be prepared when the volume comes back. We need be sure we've got the capacity to handle it, and that's a lot of our work.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what are some of the things that you're trying to do during this breather that you can be ready before the traffic starts to take off again?
MARION BLAKEY: Well, we're working to modernize both the hardware and software that our controllers use as they are actually controlling traffic. We're looking at the question of what kind of weather information we can provide at our centers, so that we have absolutely state- of-the-art information from that standpoint. We're also looking at the question of automation on the flow of traffic across the country. In addition to questions of the weather and what we know literally about conditions on the ground, what can we do by using computer technology and the kind intelligence that's there to space flights as safely, but as closely together as we can, so that we make the maximum use out of the air space in parts of country where there is a lot of congestion, and all of this is the kind of both technology and somewhat new operations that we're working to bring to bear on what we hope will be the system really back up to normal in the near future.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there money to make these improvements? You know, during the late '90s there were a lot of investigative reports and exposes about the age of the computer system that was sort of serving as the backbone of the air traffic control system, and one of the pleas on the other side was, "Look, we know we need to change it, we just can't afford it."
MARION BLAKEY: Well, you know, I mean, there's always the question of, are we devoting enough resources and bringing them to bear correctly? But the FAA's overall budget is about $14 billion a year. And a significant part of that is devoted towards new technologies and new operations. I also have to say that the airline industry has stepped up, and they have certainly brought on board in the cockpit new avionics that make possible things that really weren't possible before. For example, American Airlines down in Miami is using a new system called "Data Link," which is a little like our e-mail, but rather than depending on all the information transferring by radio, you know, the voice from the tower, a great deal of information now can be transmitted to the cockpit very efficiently, as I say, using systems that weren't there before. So, it's not just a question of the federal investment, it's a question of investment in the system across the board. And certainly, I think, there is a lot to be said for the resources that are there right now.
RAY SUAREZ: And more runways in the pipeline?
MARION BLAKEY: I'm glad you brought that up, because I think that's one of the things that we as a country need to accept. No matter what we do in terms of modernization of our air traffic control system and the national air space, you've got to land them. And what that essentially means is, there's got to be sufficient pavement out there in critical areas of the country so that we really do have the infrastructure on the ground to make efficient use of the air space. And I think that's something that we are seeing more of. In fact, there are new runways coming on board every year. And that's encouraging, I think, to all of us. But probably still, this is an area that we have to develop more political will to say, "Yes, we're going to work through the environmental issues." "We are going to try to find a way that is responsive to the community, and at the same time, gives us more capacity on the ground."
RAY SUAREZ: FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. Thanks a lot.