FAA’s ATO: a club for airline executives?

Connections between the airlines and FAA run deep. No surprise there. The documented history shows that the one most persistent federal role in aviation regulation has always been to help grow and support aviation as an industry. Translation: FAA’s first customers are passenger airlines, air cargo operators, and  manufacturers of aircraft and avionics. FAA’s customers are corporations like United, FedEx, Boeing and Rockwell-Collins.

The relationship between FAA and the airlines became even more entangled when Executive Order #13180 was signed, calling for an “Air Traffic Performance-Based Organization”. This happened on December 7, 2000 … yet another day that will live in infamy. Yup, President Clinton signed the Order on the anniversary of the raids on Pearl Harbor. Implementation was delayed, first by FAA’s organizational girth, and then again by the 9/11 attacks. Finally, in 2003, FAA reinvented itself all over again, becoming a lean, mean flying machine, this time with ‘service areas’ and a COO and other corporate labels, all under the leadership of FAA Administrator Marion Blakey (she became CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association shorty after leaving FAA in 2007; many were up in arms about her lucrative use of the corporate revolving door). So, in 2003, FAA’s new organizational structure was born, and it then proceeded to dismantle the unions and demoralize the employees. Not surprisingly, FAA saw a string of commercial accidents that screamed for safety reform: AmericanConnection at Kirksville in ’04; Southwest at Midway and Chalks Ocean near Miami in ’05; Comair at Lexington in ’06; and Colgan at Buffalo in ’09. Then there was the failed maintenance oversight at Northwest (in ’05-’06), and the series of Southwest fuselage ruptures related to the whistleblower hearings of ’08. Meanwhile, we continue to see nearly 500 fatalities each year in the United States, due to the crash of small aircraft (general aviation). Some believe we are still cleaning up the messes begun ten years ago…

Here’s the lineup of ATO COO’s so far…
… first Chew, then Sturgell, then Krakowski, and now Grizzle.

Current ATO COO: J. David Grizzle

J. David Grizzle, COOThe current ‘Chief Operating Officer’ of FAA’s ATO is David Grizzle. Mr. Grizzle came from Continental Airlines. SEC filings and other online records show a long airline career, starting with being Legal Counsel at New York Air in 1984. He joined Continental with the 1987 merger, served a variety of positions including VP of Alliance Development 4/95 to 11/96, then Senior VP for Corporate Development, starting in November 1996. He also served for years on the Board of Expressjet, one of the largest ‘regional carriers’ spun off from the airlines. [NOTE: Some experts assert that the key purpose behind forming the regionals was to  provide airline management with leverage to undermine pilot contracts, which had grown to pay pilots quite generously.]

At the same timeframe when Jeffery Smisek was picked to succeed Gordon Bethune atop Continental, Mr. Grizzle took a corporate leave of absence; he was dispatched by the U.S. State Department as an aide in Afghanistan, with expertise on transportation issues. During his fifteen months there, from September 2004 until December 2005, he collected his thoughts and experiences into an interesting blog:

Kabul Corporate Monk —
“Observations on life by one who has contemplatively left his corporate comfort zone in order to
serve God and America in Kabul”

The text under the blog title accurately reflects Grizzle’s spirituality, and his work and values were covered in articles and interviews within the Christian media. But, after his time in Kabul, Grizzle returned to ‘the comfort zone’. He resumed his Continental career, serving as Senior VP of Customer Experience, and then as Senior VP of Government Affairs. He finally retired from Continental in 2008, shortly before becoming the top lawyer at FAA.

Grizzle’s entire career at Continental shows he was a key executive involved in the three biggest airline restructuring strategies of recent times:

  1. the spin offs of air service to smaller, regional carriers (with the loss of accountability, as became apparent with the Buffalo crash by Colgan under Continental)
  2. the repeated use of bankruptcy law to undermine labor contracts and pension obligations, while tilling the soil for the next round of airline mergers;
  3. and, mega-mergers between the airlines, such as the current American – USAir merger.

Of course, 2008 was also the year that Obama was elected, and in no small part due to his relationship with labor. Randy Babbitt (with a deep background as a pilot for Eastern Airlines and as a leader in ALPA, the large pilot’s union) was then selected to be FAA Administrator, and he in turn selected Grizzle to become FAA’s Chief Counsel in June 2009. When Hank Krakowski had to step down in the wake of the rash of sleeping controller incidents, Grizzle was made acting ATO COO in April 2011.  His appointment was made permanent, as announced on 7/7/11.

Previous ATO COO’s:

Mr. Grizzle’s predecessors also came from the airlines, including:

Russell Chew: he was the first ATO COO, beginning in November 2003. Interesting guy, actually. Trained as a dentist, but preferred flying, so he joined American Airlines as a flight engineer, then rose to become in charge of systems operations before leaving for FAA in 2003. He resigned the ATO COO position in April 2007. He worked as President and COO at JetBlue for a couple years. Today, he is a partner at NEXA Capital Partners, LLC.

Bobby Sturgell: a Navy fighter pilot and aviation lawyer, who served as both a line pilot and a flight operations supervisor at United Airlines. He served as Senior Counsel for FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, then became her Deputy Administrator in March 2003. When Mr. Chew resigned, Mr. Sturgell became the acting COO until Mr. Krakowski was confirmed. He left FAA at the end of the Bush administration, and became a Senior VP at Rockwell-Collins in April 2009. According to the corporate website, his responsibilities include developing and implementing the company’s governmental, regulatory, legislative and industrial affairs strategies, and maintaining relationships with Congressional members, staff and other administration officials.

Hank Krakowski: thirty years in senior management at United, including service as United’s VP of Corporate Safety, Security and Quality Assurance. He was in charge of United’s operations control as Director of Flight Operations Control, when the attacks happened on 9/11. Krakowski became the ATO COO in 2007, then resigned in April 2011, related to the rash of sleeping controller incidents. Today he works with Russell Chew, at NEXA Capital Partners, LLC.