What the FAA Needs Is a Domineering, Jet-Propelled Coach

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As I sat in Jane Garvey's conference room on Wednesday morning, I got to thinking about Vince Lombardi. Or better yet, Pat Summitt.

Garvey, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, was presenting the agency's new report on airline delays in her typical, graceful style. And then it struck me — she's just too nice a person for this job. What the FAA — and airline travelers — need is a leader who is able to inspire, well, fear.

Like a beleaguered college sports team, the ugly reality is that the airline industry is a mess. Eight of the country's most important airports are choked to a standstill on a regular basis, with the distinct possibility that this vacation season might be worse than 2000's Summer of Discontent.

There is plenty of blame to go around. But Garvey, who is a Democrat in a Republican administration and has what must be the most punishing job in Washington, tap-danced around any overt criticisms of the biggest offenders: the airlines that have overscheduled existing airports into gridlock (and have a history of discouraging the building of new airports); members of Congress who have contributed to the mess; and a 747-ful of government officials who for years have failed to get ahead of air traffic problems.

A hypersensitive industry

Truth be told, the problem isn't exactly Garvey. Although she is the first FAA chief in history to have a five-year, tenure-like appointment, technically she can be removed at any time. So she is careful not to put a word out of place in the hypersensitve aviation community. With an administration that has so far granted every wish the airline industry has asked of it, Garvey knows her head might be the next request.

That's where Pat Summitt comes in.

Summitt, of course, is the domineering and absurdly successful coach of the University of Tennessee women's basketball team, one of the best the game has ever seen. She is a blunt-spoken, hypercompetitive perfectionist. If her charges don't perform, they're gone. What does she know about airplanes? Not much besides nearly having a baby in one, at altitude, when she ignored serious labor pains and went on a recruiting trip. But Summitt would eat a swaggering airline CEO for breakfast (along with her usual nails).

But more important, the job has to change. No more underpaid punching bag. Cash some of Dick Cheney's stock options and get someone of Summitt's stature, change the title from administrator to president of the FAA, and simultaneously put through the paperwork that allows her to overrule the "real" President on any aviation matter. And make the FAA president's job comparable to a Supreme Court Justice. Yes, a life term. (Don't worry, there isn't actually anyone who would stay that long). Then tell Summitt she can go back to hoops as soon as Newark Airport goes one year without a flight being delayed.

A matter of simple economics

It was clear even before the FAA study that the air transport system lives every day on the edge of chaotic delays. It's economics 101: Supply cannot meet demand. And common sense 202: Why should everyone have a constitutional right to fly into LaGuardia?

The FAA pointed out how bad things get in terms of airline overscheduling. For example, at Chicago's O'Hare Airport there are typically more airline operations scheduled than the airport can handle. It's worth it to the airlines — since current rates for using the air traffic system and the airport facilities are so low that airlines send in squadrons of smaller planes to spread choice for the consumer throughout the day. Last year, before managers at San Francisco International Airport threatened penalties, one carrier was offering 30 nonstop flights to Los Angeles over a 17-hour period. At one point, two separate flights were only 11 minutes apart, and there was a 15-minute difference between two others.

There are lots of solutions out there: more runways; higher prices for flying at rush hour; incentives for airlines to use larger aircraft that take up proportionately less space and time in crowded airports; encouraging, or forcing, use of secondary airports; gagging members of Congress who insist on nonstop, cheap flights from Podunk to Major Metropolis; and even (anti-government types should skip this part) reinstitution by the FAA of slots (that is, landing and takeoff rights) at the most delayed airports.

All of these ideas have been batted around, and mostly down, for years. Some gloomy experts say there needs to be at least one more delay-plagued summer season before all interested parties in the industry will sit down and seriously entertain higher prices or equipment changes, or, for heaven's sake, flying to one of the scores of smaller airports.

I don't know about you, but I say: Send in the coach!