America and ‘the man that goes by the name of the Sandman’

April 14, 2008 at 12:40 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This post is for anyone who travels in airspace controlled by the FAA, especially all my family, friends and colleagues, whether you do the transatlantic shuffle on a regular basis, or your trip is a once-in-lifetime experience.

iTunes cover art for America’s Greatest Hits History captures the transatlantic connections embodied by that ’70s group—reflecting influences all the way from London to San Francisco:

America Greatest Hits History iTunes cover art London San Francisco

Sandman is track 3 on that album.  (I guess you know it well.)  The first two lines of Sandman lyrics sum up the problems we have with congestion at Heathrow.  More appropriately, in this case, the lyrics are being used to highlight concerns over safety that have resulted in the grounding of planes Stateside in recent weeks.


Ain’t it foggy outside
All the planes have been grounded

Ain’t the fire inside?
Let’s all go stand around it
Funny, I’ve been there
And you’ve been here
And we ain’t had no time to drink that beer

‘Cause I understand you’ve been running from the man
That goes by the name of the Sandman
He flies the sky like an eagle in the eye
Of a hurricane that’s abandoned

Ain’t the years gone by fast
I suppose you have missed them
Oh, I almost forgot to ask
Did you hear of my enlistment?

Concerns over safety have beset the struggling American aviation industry, though it is easy for us to miss what is happening over there when we are so caught up with the Heathrow fiasco on our doorstep.

To bring you up-to-date, here follow a few excerpts of stories and one complete editorial that have appeared in the New York Times.  The campaign is building to Eject Bobby Sturgell, acting head and acting administrator of the FAA.

Aging Jet Fleets an Added Strain on US Airlines
New York Times, United States – Apr 11, 2008
An aging fleet is catching up with domestic airlines, and the maintenance issues that inevitably arise are likely to worsen as the industry’s jets grow older and its finances weaken.
Mr. Mitchell on Friday called for the removal of the F.A.A.’s acting administrator, Robert A. Sturgell. “The traveling public has had its trust broken,” Mr. Mitchell said.
From the Desk of David Pogue
Toward Friendlier Skies
New York Times, United States – Apr 11, 2008
Over the weekend, CBS News “Sunday Morning” broadcast my report about the Federal Aviation Administration’s technology for relieving the nightmarish congestion our air-traffic system faces right now. (You can watch it here.)

As part of the story, I interviewed Robert Sturgell, head of the F.A.A.. There wasn’t time to air more than a couple of minutes of his interview–so I’m taking this opportunity to send you a more complete excerpt.

DP: First of all, there is a certain amount of frustration among the flying public, and they want to know why can’t something be done.

RS: Well, last year was our worst year in terms of delays. The system is getting very crowded, very congested at specific airports right now. But traffic is forecasted to grow two to three times above existing levels today– in the years 2020 to 2025 or so. So what we are working on is a fundamental transformation of the air traffic control system, to move to one that is much more automated.

It’s called the Next Generation Air Transportation System [NextGen, of which A.D.S.-B is a major component].

Fear and Flying
New York Times, United States – Apr 10, 2008
If there can be any good news in hundreds of thousands of passengers being stranded as airlines ground fleets of planes for urgent inspection, it is that the Federal Aviation Administration is doing its job. Unfortunately, it is trying to make up for years of not doing its job in keeping them safe, and travelers are the victims.

If the F.A.A. had consistently monitored safety instead of being shamed into action last month by whistle-blowers and an angry Congress, the inspections might have been better scheduled or in some cases, even unnecessary. Now, the agency says that travel interruptions will be with us at least through June, depending on the results of its stepped-up safety audits.

We’d love to be able to suggest alternatives to flying, but the same government that allowed the airlines to get to this sorry pass has been starving the passenger rail system, and the constant rise in gasoline prices does not make long-distance driving very attractive.

American Airlines canceled a good chunk of its schedule beginning on Tuesday — more than 2,000 flights — for maintenance checks set off by concerns over wiring in its fleet of MD-80 aircraft. Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines also had to conduct inspections at the F.A.A.’s direction. Four carriers as yet unidentified may face fines for not following the agency’s safety directives.

The F.A.A.’s unacceptably laissez-faire system of safety enforcement is powerful evidence of the damage done by Ronald Reagan’s ideological campaign of deregulation. It came to light only when Southwest reported that it had missed inspections for fuselage cracks. That was bad enough, but it turned out that Southwest had flown the planes in question for nine months in 2006 and 2007. It was hit with an appropriately stiff civil penalty of $10.4 million.

The F.A.A. has been deferring in frightening ways to the airlines on safety inspections. The industry inspects itself, reporting its own safety lapses to ward off fines. The agency audits the companies’ paperwork, a task that has grown more complicated as airlines cut costs by outsourcing maintenance. The airlines were allowed to undercut audits they did not like by requesting reviews by upper-level federal managers who often seemed ready to ignore or forgive almost anything. Two courageous whistle-blowers told a Congressional committee that they were harassed for simply doing their jobs.

Given aging fleets and overtaxed and outdated traffic control and computer systems, reforms are needed — beginning at the F.A.A., which needs the strong leadership that was lacking under Marion Blakey, who recently ended her term as administrator.

The acting administrator, Robert Sturgell, is qualified to head the agency. He’s a pilot and a lawyer. But his nomination is not likely to get a vote in the Senate. That’s in part over anger with the F.A.A.’s poor performance and because he would get a five-year term. The Democratic leaders in Congress are determined to wait until there’s a new president.

Mr. Sturgell deserves a vote, but he could do a great public service nonetheless if, in the time he remains at the helm, he continues to steer the agency toward increased regulation and enforcement — however anathema that is to the Bush administration.

When a federal agency refers to the industry it oversees as its “customers,” as the F.A.A. did with the airlines, a boundary has been dangerously crossed. As Representative James Oberstar, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, rightly said last week: “The F.A.A.’s only customer is the air-traveling public.”

United Cancels 31 Flights for Inspections
New York Times, United States – Apr 3, 2008
Robert A. Sturgell, the acting administrator of the FAA, said the agency had checked compliance with nearly 2400 such orders and found a 99 percent …
United Brings Some 747s in for More Testing
New York Times, United States – Mar 20, 2008
Robert A. Sturgell, acting FAA chief, ordered inspection officials earlier this week to make sure airlines were complying with airworthiness directives. …

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