Can FAA save money by reducing administrative overhead?

Today is Day 10 of ‘Shutstorm 2013!’  The drifts just keep piling higher, with no sign of warming.

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Have you ever wondered how much the controllers are paid at a particular tower or TRACON? Or, how much FAA pays its Regional Counsel, the Federal Air Surgeon, or the thousands of ‘program analysts’ and managers at dozens of big glass boxes, like the one near your hometown?

When the FAA made us all play along last spring in their new reality show, ATC Sequester Threat, did you ever wonder just how much FAA was spending elsewhere? Did you wonder if maybe FAA had other personnel expenses that they were staying very quiet about, while loudly furloughing controllers? I did, and then I spent a few hours doing research online, and compiling some FAA pay data.

That data is presented here, via four links to PDF files. Each PDF file provides the top 200 pay recipients at four key FAA locations:

…click on the four links below to see color PDF copies…

Why These Four Locations?

These four locations cover the administrative centers at the two highest levels of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO). While FAA Headquarters is in Washington, DC, the entire nation is divided into three parts, called ‘Service Areas’. These three Service Area offices fall within pay zones in Atlanta (ESA), Fort Worth (CSA), and Seattle (WSA). Though not included here, FAA has other high-level administrative facilities located in Atlantic City (the tech center) and in Oklahoma City (facilities for training and aerospace medicine).

[AAL]: Alaskan Region (AK)
[ACE]: Central Region (IA, KS, MO, NE)
[AEA]: Eastern Region (DC, DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA, VA, WV)
[AGL]: Great Lakes Region (IL, IN, MI, MN, ND, OH, SD, WI)
[ANE]: New England Region (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)
[ANM]: Northwest Mountain Region (CO, ID, MT, OR, UT, WA, WY)
[ASO]: Southern Region (AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, PR, SC, TN, VI)
[ASW]: Southwest Region (AR, LA, NM, OK, TX)
[AWP]: Western-Pacific Region (AZ, CA, HI, NV)

For most of it’s history, FAA has maintained an administrative structure with nine Regional Offices, each with its own Regional Administrator, Regional Air Traffic Director, Regional HR Director, Regional Flight Surgeon, Regional Counsel, etc. During the Clinton Administration, FAA and Congress experimented with ‘Personnel Reform’, much of which was focused on streamlining, eliminating redundancy, and bringing FAA to ‘business-like’ performance. Or, at least, that was the sales pitch: ‘gosh, FAA could serve the Public so much better if Congress would only approve (and fund!) a transition to a new, more business-like organizational structure’. The two decades since have seen no improvements attributable to FAA’s restructuring.

These efforts eventually included the formation of a so-called ‘Performance-Based Organization’. Thus, one of the final acts by President Clinton was his signing of Executive Order #13180 on 12/7/00. It took only a few years for us to see what happened next. FAA took full advantage of the fact that the new organizational structure blurred all accountability. It was no longer clear who was responsible for what, plus the transition created a grand opportunity to counter any questions (from concerned employees and citizens, or even from Congress) with ‘oh, we are still in transition on that new guideline’. At the front line, when a work culture blurs accountability, you end up with sleeping controllers, ‘working’ controllers watching DVD movies on laptops, and rampant retaliation against Whistleblowers.

So, that’s some of the history. Here is a list with a few takeaway points for this pay data (…one person’s observations…):

  • The top-200 payees at each of the three FAA ‘Service Areas’ are strongly dominated by Air Traffic, including:
    • Dallas-Ft. Worth: Air Traffic employees represented 76% of the top-200, with pay/bonuses averaging $168,000/yr;
    • Seattle: Air Traffic employees represented 61% of the top-200, with pay/bonuses averaging $162,000/yr;
    • Atlanta: Air Traffic employees represented 33% of the top-200, with pay/bonuses averaging $153,000/yr;
  • At FAA Headquarters in Washington, DC: Air Traffic employees represented only 7% of the top-200, but averaged $182,000/yr; the dominant group here is ‘Program Management’, with 52% of the top-200, averaging $193,000/yr.
  • Consistently, Air Traffic pay levels far outpace pay levels for engineers, computer specialists, and other technical occupations. The interesting thing about this is that these technical occupations are quite specialized and require extensive (and expensive) schooling, while most of the Air Traffic positions require nothing beyond a high school diploma. In fact, a substantial number of controllers are hired with no or minimal college, and based almost entirely on their two- to six-years learning ATC in the military.
  • Administrative pay levels at FAA appear to be ratcheted up by ATC pay levels. That is to say, FAA and the unions representing FAA employees have a long history of campaigning on the high-profile ATC job, securing Congressional approval to raise ATC pay, then quickly floating all other boats to the new water level.
  • Cash bonuses are quite generous for the small circle of top managers, who consistently are maxed out on the federal pay scale. It appears that 10%+ annual cash bonuses are a way to elevate pay so that these bonus recipients effectively exceed the federal pay limits.
  • A curious detail … pay levels in Atlanta are consistently lower than in the other studied localities. Perhaps this is due to lower local cost of living, or perhaps the leadership in that region (ASO, FAA’s Southern Region) is more fiscally conservative.
  • Lastly, these analyses do not account for FAA contract employees. There are thousands of FAA employees who retire, begin to collect their pensions, and immediately supplement that income with contract ‘support’ positions, paid by FAA. These positions are nearly always at the same location or at a preferred retirement location; and, they are not just at Headquarters and the Service Areas, but also at hundreds of FAA field facilities.