By Samantha Levine
While other kids played outside, young Russell Chew labored in his parents’ Thousand Oaks, Calif., garage over a 4-foot-by-8-foot plywood board covered with electric trains and model planes. The 12-year-old’s goal? To make sure nothing collided. It’s not so different with his new job. This summer, Chew, now 50, became the first chief operating officer of the nation’s beleaguered air traffic control system.
And not a moment too soon. Over the past 20 years, the Federal Aviation Administration has spent $35 billion on attempts to modernize the air traffic control system, but it hasn’t gone too well. The system maintains an excellent safety record, but the 20 largest equipment modernization projects are more than $4.3 billion over budget and between one and seven years overdue, according to the Transportation Department’s inspector general. A program to replace 30-year-old controller workstations with 400-square-inch color displays, for example, is seven years late and has seen its price balloon from $940 million to $1.7 billion, according to the inspector general. And there’s often a lack of communication between air traffic controllers, airport managers, and frustrated passengers when storms or other troubles strike the system. “We need to get in front of the twists and turns,” FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told an aviation industry gathering this summer. The agency, she said, must become “accountable for results.”
Enter Chew. As head of a new, semi- independent Air Traffic Organization within the FAA, he’ll draw up a strategic plan to improve the system, oversee its finances, supervise research and development, and try to accelerate modernization. For a guy who marveled at Disneyland’s Rocket Jets as a kid, it’s “the opportunity of a lifetime,” Chew says.
Challenged. But it could be the frustration of a lifetime, too. There’s little doubt the amiable, even-keeled Chew has the know-how to fix the troubled system; he spent 17 years as a top-level manager at American Airlines. But the downsizing of the job’s authority and the FAA’s renowned resistance to change could make that impossible. “I would be a screaming maniac after two hours there,” says Darryl Jenkins, a friend of Chew’s and head of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University. John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, says Chew “is being asked to bail water on the Titanic.”
For years, commissions and oversight panels tried–and failed–to fix the FAA’s chronic air traffic control problems. By the late 1990s, it became clear that a crisis was looming. Between 1990 and 1997, passenger traffic jumped 41 percent to 122 million annual travelers. A white paper written by Chew, then managing director of strategic operations planning at American, predicted aviation gridlock by 2005 if nothing changed. Between 1995 and 2000, delays increased 33 percent, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
There was a clear concept on how to fix the system. Air traffic control should get more flexibility in how it operates, aviation experts said, in return for sticking to a strict strategic plan and working under a chief operating officer and independent oversight board. The idea languished, though, until the summer of 2000, when stormy weather, overscheduling, and balky old air traffic control equipment nearly crippled U.S. airspace. More than a quarter of all flights were delayed or canceled. That December, President Clinton signed a law to transform the air traffic control system.
But there were problems from the start. The law was unclear–how would the COO fit into the FAA’s complicated hierarchy?–and nobody had answers. It was not until the spring of 2003 that Congress and the FAA cleared up the confusion and Chew took the job. But some say the changes watered down Chew’s power: The FAA administrator now heads the oversight board–originally, it was independent. And the COO won’t write policy but rather implement the administration’s ideas. President Bush’s plan to privatize controllers at small control towers could erode Chew’s authority, too.
But Chew’s new agency is still responsible for the 15,000-worker air traffic control system, which currently guides 200,000 takeoffs and landings per day. The 9/11 attacks depressed air travel volume; traffic is expected to increase around 4 percent next year, says aviation consultant David Swierenga, but still remain well below pre-9/11 levels. Chew says that dip “gives us a brief window to look at what we can do to improve the system.” For starters, he’ll rely on town-hall-type meetings to get everyone focused. “You can’t do brute force,” he says. And he may not have to. Carr, who represents the largest air traffic controllers union, says Chew “is like the person we would have picked . . . .He’s not a suit, a bean-counter, or a geek. He gets it operationally; it’s in his DNA.”
Indeed, Chew’s idea of relaxation is studying complexity theory and improving his home’s wireless computer network. He also flies radio-controlled model planes with his two kids–a 15-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. A relatively short man sporting slicked-down hair and rimless glasses, Chew has an understated demeanor that is deceiving; he has always been a go-getter. As an eager young engineer with American Airlines, he created the company’s first digitized, automated database for pilot debriefings, and he later led groups exploring flexible use of airspace and cutting-edge aviation communications. “He is really key in thinking about where the industry needs to be,” says former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey.
Change of plans. It’s quite a trajectory for a guy who thought he’d be a dentist. Chew’s childhood fascination with “anything that moved” couldn’t outweigh his dad’s advice: Pick a career that can support a family. So the younger Chew followed his father into dentistry. Always one who loved building intricate devices, Chew was tops at crafting oral crowns and bridges. He would have made “a sparkling dentist,” sighs former classmate George Bogen.
But it was not to be. During a college internship with NASA near the wind tunnels of the Ames Research Center in Northern California, Chew began flying lessons. Then he flew during his meager spare time at dental school. When he got his doctorate, he also received his jet pilot’s license. He worked as a dentist to pay off his school loans, but he flew freight at night and on weekends between Los Angeles, Burbank, Phoenix, and San Francisco. Soon, he felt he had to choose: aviation or dentistry? It was a no-brainer. “On Sundays, many dentists go flying,” he says, “but I didn’t know too many who go in on Sunday to do more dentistry.”
Chew began as an on-board flight engineer for American Airlines in 1986, working on 727s based at LaGuardia Airport. He was so impressive that within about a year he was asked to run the testing of all new American Airlines flight engineers at Los Angeles International Airport. Then, a progression of management jobs and prescient research got the attention of American’s top brass. Before long, Chew was representing the airline before Congress with frank testimony. In October 1999, for example, he told the House Aviation Subcommittee that the FAA had structural problems “even the best management team in the world would have difficulty fixing . . . .” By then, Chew was running all operations at American–covering more than 2,800 daily flights in the United States.
Chew has always loved making things work. All through high school, he upgraded his garaged minicity and worked at a hobby shop to get the parts he needed for rudimentary computers to automate it. Chew’s mother, Florence, often complained that her money disappeared into her son’s curious creations. But she has come around a bit since then. “If I had only known in the beginning this is where he was heading,” she says, “I wouldn’t have said anything.”
Article posted 10/19/03 at USNews & World Report; copied 2/16/13 from: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/031027/27chew.htm