"No One’s In Charge"

“why is it that we can put a man on the moon but can’t fly him from Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., without at least a two-hour delay?” ask Chris Palmeri and Keith Epstein of Business Week in a very insightful and informative article on the Federal Aviation Administration.

It’s not a lack of available technology, they say, and it’s not even security concerns. The fundamantal problem, they say, is “a fundamental organizational failure.”

“Nobody is in charge,” they write. “The various players in the system, including big airlines, small aircraft owners, labor unions, politicians, airplane manufacturers, and executives with their corporate jets, are locked in permanent warfare as they fight to protect their own interests. And the FAA, a weak agency that needs congressional approval for how it raises and spends money, seems incapable of breaking the gridlock.”

Paleri and Epstein quote Langhorne M. Bond, administrator of the agency from 1977 to 1981: “The FAA as currently structured is impossible to run efficiently.”

They say the nation’s air traffic control infrastructure — based on “radar beams and squawking contollers” — belongs in the Smithsonian.

“Pilots fly FAA-determined routes that are based largely on where bonfires and electric beacons were built in the early days of aviation, the better to guide the air mail pilots of the 1920s as they crisscrossed the country, navigating by sight.”

“Digitization? The entire network runs on software known as Jovial, so old there are only six programmers in the country who know how to write it.”

“Incredible as it seems,” they write, “family minivans with NavStar have more sophisticated location guidance than some aircraft.”

Palmeri and Epstein make a strong case that all the “players” ought to set aside their individual interests and take a look at the future of aviation. The current mess, which could easily get a lot worse, isn’t helping anyone.