The FAA and Safer Skies

THE Federal Aviation Administration ensures the safety of millions of air passengers each year. So the turbulence it's encountering is no laughing matter.

The number of air passengers rose 50 percent in the last 10 years, and growth is likely to continue. At the same time, the FAA and its air traffic controllers are forced to use increasingly outdated and sometime dilapidated equipment, systems, and facilities. This has led to a rise in the number of breakdowns and delays.

The Pittsburgh control tower's radar, for example, has failed three times this year. A 30-year-old computer at a Chicago air traffic control center has malfunctioned for months, while power and communications have failed there and at centers in New York and California.

The FAA says cumbersome federal personnel and procurement rules prevent managers from hiring whom they want, placing them where they want, and getting the equipment they need when they need it. Others point out that FAA administrators change too often to allow for management follow-through on modernization projects. The air traffic controllers' union says the key problem is mismanagement.

It's going to take money to keep the agency up to date and the skies safe. But while the FAA says it will need $9.92 billion a year by 2002, the congressional budget resolution calls for $7.45 billion. Separate House and Senate bills seek to address problems at the agency. The House bill provides no new financing, either through taxes or user fees. Its supporters claim that better personnel and procurement policies would save the FAA money. The Senate bill, supported by the administration, also simplifies procurement procedures, but provides for an agency fee on airlines that could be raised up to 10 percent annually.

Congress's General Accounting Office estimates that new procurement and personnel rules will not save the agency large sums of money. With budget cuts in the offing, funding will have to come from somewhere. The Senate plan offers more realistic prospects for reform at the FAA.

Lawmakers should also consider professionalizing and depoliticizing the FAA administrator's job by creating a 10-year term such as that of the FBI director. That's not to denigrate the work of David Hinson or his predecessors. But the administrator's tenure needs to be longer, and general agency management needs improving.

Safety also demands that recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board to the FAA be mandatory, not optional as they are today. Lawmakers should see to it that the safety agency's findings carry more weight in the government than is now the case.

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