He was no monument, but Ken Mead cast a long shadow around the nation’s Capitol, first as the head of transportation investigations for the major congressional watchdog and then, after 1997, as the watchdog for the US Transportation Department itself. And as the Department’s inspector general, the post he resigned this week, Ken Mead became the airline industry’s ‘go-to’ guy for separating partisan interests from policy issues and was a trusted arbiter of how an issue should be framed for legislators and what the facts were for policy makers.
His earlier post in the General Accounting Office, now known as the Government Accountability Office, let Mead tell congressional panels what the facts were as issues emerged. His approach was just the facts, as the television detectives used to say on the old “Dragnet” series, and he played a key role in the 1990s rewrite of safety and operating standards for regional airlines in response to the so-called “One Level of Safety” campaign launched by the Air Line Pilots Association to close the gap between major carriers and smaller airlines.
And as inspector general, Mead cut through both political rhetoric and media fog to lay out the facts of issues such the airline industry’s precarious finances or the FAA’s troubles in modernizing air traffic control. Mead’s most recent investigations dealt with maintenance outsourcing, and he both raised red flags and quieted the sillier speculation.
Mead’s resignation, after nearly 20 years in the congressional spotlight, surprised most of official Washington, and he offered no explanation and announced no new position. In an Airline Business interview in April 2003, Mead said that security issues had taken up much of his time since 2001, even though the Homeland Security Department was not in his portfolio. And increasingly such intractable issues as the fate of the national passenger railroad, Amtrak, or major highway projects such as Boston’s ‘Big Dig’, were consuming much time.
Democrats and Republicans both praised his work and lamented his departure. Inspector generals were supposed to be “meaner than junkyard dogs”, as the late President Reagan once said of them, but his fairness and equanimity meant Mead was no meanie.