The Federal Aviation Administration, under pressure to improve airline safety, is reexamining ideas that would allow it to devote more resources to regulating the nation's skies.
While much attention has focused on a proposal to clarify the agency's mission, the FAA is quietly studying other changes that may have far more impact on how it operates in the future.
The changes range from the mundane, such as requiring the private sector to pick up the tab for research projects, to the dramatic - spinning off its Air Traffic Control system, which consumes 41 percent of the FAA's $8.9 billion annual budget.
Such moves would allow the agency to focus more time and resources on the singular task of monitoring air safety. Yet some of the changes - particularly splitting off air-traffic-control duties - would also be highly controversial.
"The idea was if you split [air traffic control] from regulatory work, regulators would have more time in regulating safety," says a consultant who works on airline-safety issues for the FAA. Freeing up resources would enable the FAA to "work smarter" by using risk assessment to decide which carriers to inspect, what to inspect for, and how to inspect them.
"They probably don't need to spend so much time on larger carriers with well-developed systems," he says. "They need to spend more on smaller, less-sophisticated airlines."
While the FAA has stepped up its scrutiny of low-cost carriers since the ValuJet crash May 11, an accident over the weekend raises questions about whether the agency also needs to increase inspections of major carriers that are undergoing massive cost-cutting. Delta Airlines, which has cut $1.6 billion from operating expenses in the past two years, experienced an accident Saturday that killed two passengers. Investigators say the plane's engine blew up during takeoff in Pensacola, Fla.
Of the reforms the FAA is considering, privatizing Air Traffic Control (ATC) has emerged as the major element because the system is so costly to operate and maintain.
"ATC systems are highly capital intensive," says Barry Blair, who ran Canada's air navigation system from 1979 to 1989. Radar and communications networks are expensive, and they must be replaced every eight to 15 years to keep abreast of technology, he says. Further, ATC requires a lot of personnel. It has 17,000 employees (36 percent of the FAA's work force), compared with a staff of 2,500 safety inspectors.
Keeping the system in shape poses special logistical problems because ATC must be operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week, says Mr. Blair, who now serves as the senior air traffic management system adviser to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Many countries have successfully privatized their ATC systems, including New Zealand, Britain, Germany, and Canada. Even Russia is making an effort to do so, say industry experts.
But others say spinning off ATC may no longer be necessary. Part of the reason for shedding ATC was to relieve the FAA of burdensome procurement and personnel policies, but Congress recently eased restrictions on these issues, says Aaron Gellman of the Transportation Center at Northwestern University in Chicago, who worked on a study about separating ATC from the FAA. "What we need to do is see if [the changes] make ATC more responsive, more efficient," he says.
Another option for the ATC system is to push toward satellite-based navigation of airplanes. The FAA and the US airline industry have endorsed "Free Flight," a proposal to allow pilots, rather than air traffic controllers, to select their routes. Free Flight is at least 10 years away and will cost billions of dollars to develop. But experts say it will save money in the long run for the FAA, the airlines, and the flying public.
Other ideas under consideration to boost the FAA's safety role include adding inspectors, requiring private companies to pick up more of the cost for research projects (such as Boeing's $7 million contribution for a testing facility of runway pavement), and appointing a career administrator rather than a presidential appointee to head the agency.
The FAA's in-house efforts to streamline coincide with congressional hearings about the agency's mission and performance. The House Transportation Committee has already questioned Department of Transportation officials about the agency's oversight of ValuJet, and the DOT's Inspector General is conducting a criminal investigation.
A Senate committee has scheduled hearings on a plan to change the FAA charter. Transportation Secretary Federico Pea has called for splitting the agency and its twin mandates: aviation regulation and promotion. But some FAA consultants say the proposal amounts to simply papering over the public's perception of the agency.