House Subcommittee on Aviation to Hold 6-15-2016 Hearing on ATC Issues

The House Subcommittee on Aviation, chaired by U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), will hold a hearing next week to review the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) air traffic controller hiring, staffing, and training plans and related issues. Here is a portion of the press release, including times and a list of the four witnesses:20160615scp.. 'FAA’s Air Traffic Controller Hiring, Staffing & Training to be Focus of Hearing' (portion of House Aviation Subcomm Press Release)

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, under Chair Bill Shuster, has been pushing hard to privatize ATC. Although most controllers are opposed, the NATCA leadership has been offering testimony and news stories that are aimed at getting Congressional approval of ATC privatization. One of the witnesses is Paul Rinaldi, head of NATCA, who has been pressing an absurd point, claiming ATC is using archaic technologies including ‘paper strips’. Another witness, Randy Babbitt, was forced to resign from his position as FAA Administrator when he failed to report an alcohol/driving charge after a Christmas party in 2011; after his abrupt resignation, he was quickly hired by Southwest Airlines.

Below are scrollable PDF files listing the committee members. These may be helpful for identifying speakers during the proceedings. They also can be used to study how powerful Congressional committees are structured, and how severely gerrymandered their districts tend to be (to ensure their reelection).

Click on either of the two images below for a scrollable view; red shows republican members (R) PDF file, blue shows democrat members (D) PDF file.
Aviation Subcommittee members are marked with a blue box around their name. Click on the PDF links to download either list.

UPDATE, 6/15/2016 at 12:23 EDT: — The hearing ended at 12:19. Random notes are viewable on page 2 of this Post. Additional updates will follow.

“…the FAA will not tolerate any degradation in safety…

…and we recognize that Congress and the traveling public share that view.”

This statement was made by David Grizzle, testifying last July before a House subcommittee. The purpose of his testimony was to reassure Congress (and the Public) about FAA’s performance, and to garner support for further funding of FAA, including the contract tower program.

Mr. Grizzle is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO). He is thus the top person in charge of air traffic control in the United States, and reports directly to the FAA Administrator. When something bad happens at an FAA tower, Mr. Grizzle should know about it, so he can ensure the problem is fixed, not repeated. But, in fact, Mr. Grizzle very likely does not actually know about the errors and accidents that are routinely concealed. Why? Because the chain  from controller to COO is long. Quite long.

Suppose an error happens. The controller who erred or witnessed the incident typically reports to a supervisor (aka Front Line Manager, FLM)…

…who reports to the facility manager (Air Traffic Manager, ATM),

…who reports to a District Manager,

…who reports to the Director of Terminal Operations at the Service Area (there are three service areas: Eastern, Central and Western),

…who reports to the Vice President of Terminal Services, at FAA HQ,

…who reports to COO David Grizzle (or perhaps to his deputy, Teri Bristol).

The critical information has to pass through five intermediate officials to get to the ATO COO. Furthermore, each of those intermediate officials typically has oversight responsibilities for ten or more comparable sub-units; so, for example, the LAX District Manager oversees nine facilities, while the Seattle District Manager oversees fifteen facilities.

Here it is graphically, on one page: a diagram showing the FAA ATO chain-of-command from the ATO COO down to the District Manager level. In this example, the yellow boxes reflect the chain-of-command from Mr. Grizzle to the Los Angeles District (which happens to be responsible for errors at an FAA tower at the beautiful coastal town of Camarillo).

Now, couple the huge organizational structure of FAA’s ATO with one simple and universal fact: that people do not like to reveal their failures, so they are inclined to withhold information for as long as possible, even forever. This problem is intensified by two other factors: first, a prevailing culture of mistrust, wherein FAA employees know that speaking up about problems (aka whistleblowing) often precipitates an attack on YOUR career, so they are inclined to stay quiet. And, second, a long FAA tradition (perhaps rooted in the predominant military culture?) wherein those who ignore rigid ‘chain-of-command’ and attempt to communicate beyond their immediate supervisor, …well, they quickly get into trouble.

Which brings us to the concealed Operational Error at Camarillo. A highly credible employee, working at the Ground Control position, was not interviewed on the day of the incident or in numerous followup efforts at Camarillo, at the Los Angeles District, or at the Western Service Area. It was eleven months later that he was finally interviewed, for an investigation conducted by the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service (AOV), out of FAA Headquarters. The investigator heard exactly what happened from this one brave person, but was told by the errant Local Controller and the witness FLM that they have no memory. So, what came of it? Despite the presence of clear confirming evidence on an ATC audio tape (as saved by another whistleblower), and despite the existence of an ATSAP report, AOV concluded the investigation was ‘inconclusive’.

Absolutely amazing. And scary, too.

Mr. Grizzle, you seem like a nice guy, a good person, and you project what we citizens need to hear, that our FAA is safe and efficient and filled with hard-working, respectable professionals. But, this citizen speaks for a larger Public and respectfully asks:

…do you really find no degradation of aviation safety, when you read about the concealment of the 7/25/10 Operational Error at Camarillo?

[link to CMA-OE diagram]

[link to the AOV report]