Times Dubs FAA 'First-Rate Regulator' and 'Role Model'

     Despite major flaws of the air traffic control system, failures to conduct safety reviews and other problems The New York Times called the Federal Aviation Administration a “first-rate regulator” on May 8.


     The Times reported that outside the United States the agency is considered a “role model” because it has the lowest accident rate in the world. Predictably, the Times’ viewed regulation rather than free-market innovation as the solution to accident rates in foreign countries.


     In Latin America, “accidents number one for every 600,000 flights” and “Africa is the least safe region in the world for air travel, with one accident for every 244,000 flights,” said the Times.


     One Times’ source, Giovanni Bisignani, secretary general of the International Air Transport Association, lamented the “the lack of a common regulatory framework” and failure to live up to standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations specialized agency.


     The airline market has been “up 7.3 percent over all in Asia in the last year” but there is no pan-Asian oversight board that inspects airlines,” and the recent upswing in the market “has not been matched by a rise in the number of skilled maintenance workers and inspectors or an increase in regulatory stringency,” said the article.


     According to the Times, “employees of state-owned airlines are paid poorly in many Asian countries, and government employees who serve as regulators are often paid less.” Torbjorn Karlsson, managing partner with the business consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles in Singapore, told the Times, “Governments need to give better incentives to these people.”


     But regulation isn’t the entire reason for fewer accidents in the United States. Safety looks good to consumers too.


     “You shouldn’t need to have a regulator looking at every aircraft as it takes off or checking every turn of a screw by a maintenance person,” Mr. Nicholson of the Civil Aviation Authority in Britain told the Times. “The regulator is the fallback. Ultimately, it is the airline’s job to do what it has to do. When there are lapses, responsibility can only ever come back to the airline.”


     Despite the safety record in the United States, the FAA has plenty of problems.


     In recent years, the agency failed to carry out more than 100 recommended safety reviews at major airlines, according to The Wall Street Journal May 6.


     In a letter to Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee overseeing FAA funding, acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell indicated the agency hasn't performed dozens of five-year reviews at eight major airline carriers.


     The Times pointed out in a separate May 8 article that some questions are being raised by the FAA and its detractors including who should run the agency? The administration has had no permanent administrator since September 2007.


     “How should it rebuild its air traffic control system and its controller work force, both of which are aging and stressed? How should it set fees for airlines and others using the air traffic system? How should it ration scarce landing slots at New York area airports to prevent national gridlock?” the Times asked.


     Wired magazine acknowledged serious flaws with the outdated Air Traffic Control (ATC) in October 2007 saying, “Built on World War II technology, the system is showing its age. Planes move quickly, and radar takes anywhere from three to 12 seconds to accurately read a position.”


     The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), the system supposed to take over for ATC isn’t projected to be fully operational with the airlines until 2025 and there is still a question of funding.


     An aviation bill already passed by the House of Representatives would provide money for a satellite-based air traffic control system, allegedly improve safety inspections of commercial airlines, provide food and water for passengers on delayed flights and control charges for corporate jets.


     The Bush administration threatened to veto the bill over tax increases as well as provisions funding highways, railroads and non-aviation concerns, according to Aviation Week May 7. The bill stalled after Senate Republicans raised the same concerns as the administration.


     The Wall Street Journal pointed out May 7 that the impasse was primarily a setback for consumer groups supporting a “passenger bill of rights,” but also airports looking to raise ticket prices to provide for expansion projects.

     Congress must vote to reauthorize the FAA every five years and the current authority expires next in June 2008. Congress has the option to pass a temporary extension pushing the reauthorization into 2009.