|DELAYS IN THE SKIES|
September 1, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Now, a further discussion between two aviation experts, Darryl Jenkins, a professor of airline economics and the executive director of the Institute of Aviation at George Washington University, and Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group/Aviation Systems Research Corporation. Mr. Boyd, how would you analyze the causes of all these delays this summer and the growing problem?
MICHAEL BOYD, Aviation Systems Research: Well, the growing problem, the issue is we can't blame this on weather: A 20 percent increase in delays. The real problem is we have a system that's 40 years old in concept and it's collapsing. And if you see the modernization program that's being installed right now, center after center will go down and cause massive delays across the nation because the modernization program they have simply isn't working. We need a better approach than what we have right now, and it's not just weather. That's a cop-out.
JIM LEHRER: Well, but when you say... what do you mean when you say system? Are you talking about hardware, or are you talking about radar, are you talking about equipment?
MICHAEL BOYD: I'm talking about the whole air traffic control system itself. And yes, it's all those ethics. I mean, it's a hodgepodge of 1990's computer systems, 1970's computer systems, some even newer, some even older and putting all that together as a system, it's sort of like a body by Fisher and a Chrysler transmission and a Ford motor. And the Ford motor comes from a Model T. We've got to get some... like Ms. Garvey just said, we need to modernize, but consensus on what modernization is, that concerns me. The air traffic control system in concept, the way we're doing it-- and she agreed with what we said, Lord, five years ago-- that we have a system that's built for DC-6's, airplanes from the 1950's. The system the way we approach it needs to be changed.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Jenkins, what would you add to that?
|The FAA out paced by the airlines|
DARRYL JENKINS, George Washington University: Well, I think, first of all, the FAA administrator should be congratulated on all she's done this summer. This is the first time we've seen really bold leadership from an FAA administrator in terms of bringing together the airlines and some very worrying components within the FAA and working out some things which will give us short term benefits. So that's really the most positive thing I've seen at the FAA in 20 years of observing it. The second thing is that the FAA is being ignored by Congress for the last two years. They've not reauthorized it, they're not giving them the tools that they need to do their job. We have probably the finest FAA administrator we've ever had, and we have a Congress who can't get together and give her the tools she needs to run her organization.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Jenkins, what's your answer to the question I asked Ms. Garvey: How did we get in this mess?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, this mess has been caused by a lot of things. I don't know if we have any one answer, but one thing is clear is that the FAA, which we have now, was built during the time of regulation when there was no growth in the airline industry, when the airlines were deregulated, they grew enormously, and we had this FAA, which was never built to manage this much growth. So the airlines went out and did what they were supposed to do, and the FAA continued to do what they...
JIM LEHRER: You mean by adding more flights and buying more airplanes and expanding their businesses you mean?
DARRYL JENKINS: Yes, that's correct. And the FAA basically had the structure, which did not allow them to keep up with that growth. So I see the FAA's problems as long-term structural, and we need to make some fundamental changes. And that's what Congress needs to do now.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Boyd, when you say modernize the system, what do you mean?
MICHAEL BOYD: Well, what we have here is a system that was, again, built to basically herd airplanes across the sky in highways. We have a lot of air space we don't use. Gordon Bethune at Continental Airlines is right, we make inefficient use of the air space we have.
JIM LEHRER: Explain that. Explain that.
|The airborne highway|
MICHAEL BOYD: Well, in other words, when an airplane takes off, generally speaking, it will be directed to fly in an airborne highway, rather than going from point A to point B. For example, if you're going to fly the preferred route that they route airplanes between Nashville and Boston, the airplane takes off, goes East, goes South, then goes North because that makes the most sense for this old system. That's a problem.
JIM LEHRER: Now, why does that make sense for the old system?
MICHAEL BOYD: Well, when you had fewer airplanes and the technology at the time, you wanted to keep airplanes together so that they could watch them with the technology that we had in the 50's and early 60's. We're still doing that. But let me say one other thing here. The problem we have in Congress is not reauthorization, per se. That is an issue. But the problem is Congress just throws money at the FAA and doesn't say what are you going to do with it? If you go back in the last five to ten years, they've wasted more money than it would take to rebuild the entire system several times over.
JIM LEHRER: Who's wasted the money?
MICHAEL BOYD: The FAA. The advanced automation system was several billion dollars. We have several other programs that were out there, billions of dollars wasted because, as the intro this piece said, there have been several programs started, stopped, started stopped because there hasn't been leadership there, and what concerns me is Ms. Garvey saying we got to get consensus. Well, consensus on what? We have an inefficient system. Let's fix that system. It's not all that hard in terms of concept to fix, but we have to have strong leadership to do it, and it's not an issue of money. True, Congress plays games with money, but the point is: All they want to do is throw money at the FAA without saying, "what are you going to do with this stuff?"
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mr. Jenkins?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, not really. We have some very good proposals right now before Congress in terms of reforming the FAA, making it more accountable, making it a performance-based organization where you would have a chief operating officer who would be held accountable for the actions of the FAA.
JIM LEHRER: Is Jane Garvey not now accountable for the actions of the F.A.A.?
|The accountability of the FAA|
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, certainly she is, but in prior times we had a real problem that we never defined how performance was measured. And for the first time, we're coming up with metrics to measure how well FAA is doing its job, performing its services.
MICHAEL BOYD: We have to have management, not just metrics and measurements. We have to have a management plan, a leadership plan and what we have to do, and I think everybody would agree with this, we've got to get the politics and the patronage positions out of the FAA. And however that's done, it's fine. But to simply say, we're going to make it a performance-based organization, that's a buzzword. We've heard things like this for ten years. What we need to know is what the FAA is going to do to fix the system, what is their plan? It's been herky jerk, one little program after another program after another program westbound billions have been wasted. We need more than buzzwords and acronyms.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Jenkins, would you agree that...
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, we haven't heard these terms for ten years. These are new concepts that are being put around, and they're actually being implemented for the first time.
MICHAEL BOYD: It's just the latest in a whole series of these things, Darryl.
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, that's just not true.
MICHAEL BOYD: It is true.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you, question, Mr. Jenkins. Do you agree with the basic premise, though, or the basic point that Mr. Boyd is making, that there has been a lot of wasted money spent thus far in trying to fix the system?
DARRYL JENKINS: I don't think anybody would disagree with it. That's not the problem that we now have. That's in the past. What we need to do at this time, and what really was for the first time in 20 years made me hopeful about the FAA was this summer, when the administrator got the airlines together and they did this one minor change of switching everything in terms of flow control to Herndon. That will make incredible improvements in the short run, and in the...
MICHAEL BOYD: I would disagree. I think it's a minor impact.
JIM LEHRER: Hold on, Mr. Boyd.
DARRYL JENKINS: Any impact that we have, even if it's minor, is something that we've never had before, and so that makes it a watershed event.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, gentlemen, both of you all are experts. The rest of us are not. Mr. Jenkins, explain your point. Why will that step improve things?
|Making a better air traffic system|
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, before you had different regions of the country who were really only looking at their one small area. Herndon flow control has the entire picture, and so they might have some backups here but they could give them some routings, which the local region was not aware of. So this flow of information is much greater. It gives with a small impacts, but these small impacts are the first impacts that we've seen in years that are positive, and that's the important point is that we're seeing small changes happen. We don't need overnight draconian changes. If we have small changes that add up over the years, then we ultimately get to the point that we want, and that's what's encouraging for the first time.
MICHAEL BOYD: I would disagree with that. I mean it's not draconian. I think we need to have effective changes. But if you look at their "modernization program" time after time, there has been incidents, this month -- I mean last month. We had a problem in Los Angeles, we had a problem in Miami,. All these things they're installing, they haven't worked properly because they haven't been thought out. Now, maybe this performance-based stuff will work, but the problem we have is we have not had a solid plan on what needs to be done and how it's going to be done. It's been basically, "let's have a press release, let's throw more money at them." And the incremental things over time will work. Well, right now I'll put it on the line, we do not have a particularly safe air traffic control system We really don't.
DARRYL JENKINS: I don't agree with that. The system is safe because of delays. Now, that's not what we want.
MICHAEL BOYD: That's not accurate. When a system goes down, when a center goes down for 35 minutes and controllers don't know where the airplanes are and the back-up system goes down as well, you cannot say that safety is not affected. It is affected, and that's happening month after month in control centers all across America, and that's a fact.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Jenkins, what else do you think? Now, you've praised...
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, first of all, the fact that we have consensus means that we're moving in a direction where the government and the airlines who they're serving are agreeing on. That's a plan. Consensus is important.
MICHAEL BOYD: I'm not sure that's we have total agreement. Everybody has agreement we want to do away with things, but how it's going to be accomplished is the real issue, I think.
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, in the short run, we have an agreement for the first time on one issue, and that is more than we have ever had before.
|Keeping the skies safe|
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, let me ask you each of you as experts, starting with you, Mr. Jenkins, if you had the power to institute one major change to improve this system, what would it be?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, I think that's going on right now where we're getting some measurements to determine which direction we're going, and if we have a direction and you're in aviation, you're halfway where you're wanting to get to.
JIM LEHRER: But I mean do you have a specific thing that you think could improve things dramatically on the delay thing, a specific thing?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, I don't want to get into the business of trying to improve things dramatically because that's what's caused a lot of the problems that we are at right now. If we will take some very small steps, like the administrator is currently doing and add those up over time, get consensus with the airlines on the improvements that need to be made... see, before for example they came up with this microwave landing system which was going to solve all the problems, but none of the airlines wanted it. They spent years and billions of dollars in doing this, and it ended up being nothing. So now we have the FAA, the airlines working together. One small step, we got that taken care of. Then we go to the next point.
JIM LEHRER: All right, Mr. Boyd, either a small or a large step, what would you recommend if you were the power of one?
MICHAEL BOYD: What we have to do, Jim, is develop a parallel system. That can be done -- a parallel system that's almost a clean sheet approach that could be used somewhere down the line in the next three to five years to replace this broken down approach we have now. We do need to make some quantum improvements in here because 200 people died in Guam because a certain piece of equipment was badly installed, the FAA knew it, did nothing about it. It's that kind of an approach we can no longer afford. People have died, more people will be at risk or will die unless we develop a new clean-sheet approach. What I would suggest, and it can be done, is a parallel system being developed from scratch at the bottom and gradually replacing this hodgepodge mess we have today.
JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.