Aviation Impacts & FAA’s Regulatory Capture: the Reasons the aiReform.com Website was Created

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its predecessor agencies have existed since the mid-1920’s. They have promoted aviation and aviation safety, building what has become our modern National Airspace System (NAS). They have brought on new technologies and grown airport capacities, to the point where today’s busiest airports have constant multiple streams of arrivals and departures. The result has been not only abundant air commerce, but also many impacts such as noise pollution, air pollution and congestion. A number of impacted citizens have complained to the FAA. Increasingly, they are ignored or feel they have been given the runaround. Many give up, and many lose confidence in government in general. Likewise, within FAA, there are employees who speak up about safety and other problems. These whistleblowers[1] often face retaliation, and some even get fired.

What is ‘Regulatory Capture’?

There is a concept called Regulatory Capture in which a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the interests of those parties they were supposed to be regulating. One of the earliest examples of regulatory capture came shortly after the first U.S. regulatory agency was formed. Here is the background story.

As railroad expansion peaked in the decades following the Civil War, many cases arose where farmers and businessmen complained of discriminatory pricing. So, in 1887, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, forming the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Five years later, the newly selected Attorney General was Richard Olney. Mr. Olney had worked for decades as a prominent railroad attorney. He accepted his appointment by President Garfield, but only after confirming he could continue to be paid to serve as a railroad attorney.

Charles Perkins was the president of the railroad where Mr. Olney worked. He asked if the ICC could be eliminated. Mr. Olney wrote his boss back and said: “The [Interstate Commerce] Commission, as its functions have now been limited by the courts, is, or can be made, of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of the railroads, at the same time that supervision is almost entirely nominal. Further, the older such a commission gets to be, the more inclined it will be found to take the business and railroad view of things. It thus becomes a sort of barrier between railroad corporations and the people and a sort of protection against hasty and crude legislation hostile to railroad interest… The part of wisdom is not to destroy the Commission, but to utilize it.”[2]

In other words, “hey, this new regulatory agency is protecting the industry from the people, and the people actually believe there is regulation going on. This is a good deal and we should leave it alone!”

Evidence that FAA is a Captured Regulatory Agency:

Today’s FAA has the same regulatory capture problem. And, as can be expected for any captured regulatory agency, FAA and its predecessor agencies has a long (and continuing) history filled with scandal, disaster, arrogant dismissal and disservice by regulatory officials only pretending to regulate. Here are some examples:

U.S. Federal air regulation began in 1925, when Congress legislated air mail rates, paid by the Post Office, to stimulate the growth of air commerce. Scandal was immediate. Postage was set at 80-cents per pound, but the air freight payment was $3/pound for each 1,000-miles. Effectively, the Post Office was using taxes and other revenues to subsidize the development of commercial aviation. It turns out some of the nascent ‘airlines’ were making huge profits by sending and hauling their own junkmail;[3] the cost of each postage stamp was returned 2-3 times over when it generated an air freight payment from the Post Office.

Two significant accidents undermined public confidence and spurred Congressional action. The 1935 crash that killed Senator Bronson Cutting was the key accident that triggered a reaction to the New Deal, and the creation of the Civil Aeronautics Authority in 1938. This pattern repeated when the FAA was created in 1958, largely in response to the 1956 Grand Canyon midair that killed all 128 on board.

Pilot fatigue is a huge aviation safety issue which NTSB has identified over and over again. The Airline Pilots Association testified at a Senate Hearing on 12/1/2009: We receive daily reports of scheduling that causes pilots to be virtual “zombies.” The domestic flight and duty rules were last amended in 1985 with the promise that the FAA would revisit these rules in two years. Twenty-five years later we are still waiting to review them.” Three of the most significant accidents include Korean Air Flight-801 (Guam, 1997, 228 deaths), Comair Flight-191 (Lexington, KY, 2006, 49 deaths), and Colgan Flight-3407 (Buffalo, NY, 2009, 50 deaths).

ATC fatigue produced a rash of ‘sleeping controller’ incidents in early 2011, including the TRACON controller at Knoxville, TN who made a bed and slept for hours while his coworker in the tower cab worked his traffic. Two months later, a ham radio enthusiast inadvertently discovered that a Cleveland Center controller has a hot microphone while watching a DVD movie … during his overnight workshift. The investigation uncovered that watching DVD movies on laptop computers at control positions was a common practice, used by controllers to stay awake, and broadly ignored by management.

Lead in Aviation Gas: Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970. A complex transition of vehicle designs and refinery technologies culminated in the complete removal of lead from gasoline by 1995. The much smaller problem of leaded AvGas was supposed to be resolved, too. In forty-two years, FAA has failed to work with EPA to eliminate the use of 100LL leaded aviation fuel. Meanwhile, the lead additive still being used in small airplanes, ‘regulated’ by FAA, has become the largest source of lead exposure in our country.

Grand Canyon Air Tour Noise had grown so severe, that it prompted Congress to pass the National Parks Overflight Act in 1987. FAA delayed and obstructed production of a mandatory Noise Plan for nearly 25-years. Air tour operations continued to grow. FAA carried their delays until 6/30/12, when a handful of congressmen accommodated narrow air tour interests and overrode the Noise Plan NPS was about to impose.

Airport Expansion is driven by more than $4 Billion per year of AIP grant funds controlled by FAA. The funds come mostly from airline passenger fees. Professional airport planners earn huge fees to stage a series of public meetings which many find to be nothing more than dog-and-pony shows. One example is the addition of a third parallel runway at SeaTac. Here is a link to a radio interview with articulate airport expansion opponent Debi Wagner.

This fuselage panel sustained a roughly 5-ft by 1-ft rupture, on the top of a B737 fuselage while at 36,000′ altitude.

Whistleblower Retaliation: one of the lowest points in FAA history came on April 3, 2008. Two FAA safety inspectors, Bobby Boutris and Doug Peters, testified at a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing on FAA safety oversight. They explained how they received threats and intimidations for speaking up about failures by Southwest Airlines to comply with maintenance inspections. The hearing testimony was chilling, and showed a widely corrupted FAA safety culture. Sharp rebukes of FAA were issued immediately, including one by Congressman Costello.

Three years later, a Southwest B737 made a rapid descent and emergency landing at Yuma, AZ due to a rupture in the fuselage (see photo at left) related to the same maintenance inspection requirements.

Former OSC head Scott Bloch produced an excellent analysis of FAA’s broken safety culture on May 29, 2011.


The need for this new website:

FAA is a captured agency and does three things very well:
they conceal, they delay, and they waste …
… money,
…and democratic process.

Of course, none of this is acceptable.

This is OUR National Airspace System. It belongs to all citizens: pilots and nonpilots; airline CEO’s and employees; and passengers AND even those who refuse to fly. We depend on FAA to run this system properly and efficiently. Regrettably, FAA is failing to perform and, worse, is impeding the effective engagement of citizens (including FAA employees) who strive to resolve Aviation Impacts.

This website seeks to empower citizens who see the need for FAA Reform; citizens who want an accountable FAA, actually regulating and managing our aviation system for the benefit of all. FAA transparency and accountability will be promoted. And, if we can reform FAA, the many impacts of aviation will be diminished.

October 2012


[1] The simplest definition of a whistleblower is one who responsibly speaks up about problems of safety, fraud, waste, or abuse of authority. Their intent is to help fix the problem, but the result is often retaliation.

[2] Quoted from Robert Fellmeth’s The Interstate Commerce Omission: The Public Interest and the ICC, Grossman Publishers, 1970, p. xiv-xv).

[3] In the original aiREFORM posting, this link went to a www.centennialofflight.gov page, with an in-depth aviation history document, funded by Congress. A month after the aiREFORM posting, the website had disappeared.