Safety in numbers

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Marion Blakey has put her faith in metrics as she sets about raising performance at the Federal Aviation Administration

She may be an executive in a job she did not deeply want, running a huge organisation facing growing budget problems, personnel unrest, project delays and cost overruns, but Marion Blakey is a woman who simply does not lose the southern charm that has become her trademark in Washington.

She will need charm now as the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, an agency that is the size of many large corporations. Blakey, born in Alabama and bred and educated in the south, took the job as the successor to the highly regarded Jane Garvey only after Andy Card, chief of staff to President Bush, persuaded her to leave the National Transportation Safety Board and take the FAA post. In her still-distinct regional accent, Blakey explains: "I had not thought of myself for the FAA job and was engaged for less than a year in a job that I considered exciting and important. It's not something I even considered. But when the President asks you to do something, you stand up and salute."

She admits that charm alone is not enough. Instead, she will rely on numbers, making metrics her key tool as the agency revises its 10-year plan to add capacity, faces pressure to control personnel costs and must avoid the acquisition disasters that gave the agency a deserved reputation for "taking too much time and spending too much money to get a project done".

Blakey explains her insistence on measuring everything that the agency does: "I am a firm believer in what Alan Mulally at Boeing calls letting the data drive you, or looking at the facts and the metrics and the hard numbers and seeing what is really there - not what you would like to be there - and making decisions based upon that." For her, metrics will apply to air traffic control and measuring people and offices in the agency. She says: "On a very frequent basis, we determine if we are meeting goals. If they are not met, are they the wrong goals or do we adjust resources?"

Blakey's first targets are the FAA's Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) - its 10-year blueprint to expand capacity, and then to increase the FAA's international reach. She has already made some revisions, including a new approach to the FAA's ambitious OEP. "We're adapting the OEP, and we now have three teams to accelerate some of the OEP programmes to focus on the shorter term, to find opportunities in the next five years, two years, even next year." Although the OEP as a whole remains focused on the mid-term of the next 10 years, "operational realities will be in the forefront and policy will shape technology at least as much as technology will shape policy".

She compares the three OEP-revision teams to the Skunk Works, Lockheed Martin's legendary experimental aerospace workshop. Some see the revised plan as "the OEP on steroids", while Blakey calls it "a conceptual hangar in the middle of a large agency". Under the revisions "some things will be taken off the fast track until such time as the industry is able to respond," she says, adding that the continued lull in traffic has provided some breathing space that was not in the original plan. The FAA has, for instance, delayed nationwide controller-pilot datalink communications and cockpit display, but will push ahead with required navigation performance.

The OEP deals with the problems the FAA has had for many years, namely planning for growth and resources, but Blakey brings a new dimension. She is the first administrator in recent memory to make international affairs a priority and elevate overseas aviation concerns to the highest levels.

Jane Garvey, Blakey's predecessor and the first FAA administrator to hold a fixed five-year term, praises this international focus, and says that in her tenure, domestic concerns were different. "At one time, we were facing more than a dozen congressional hearings on airport capacity and delays," she says.

For her part, Blakey says: "In the past, Y2K and other concerns forced the FAA to focus domestically. Now, we need to come to a common set of global rules with Europe on the best way to ensure smooth operations and a fair playing field for all competitors in emerging markets."

Safety partnership

For instance, the European Union is developing its own regulatory agency and plans a more unified air traffic system with Eurocontrol and the implementation of Galileo, Europe's satellite navigation project. Blakey wants to be ready for that and for the transition to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) from the JAA. Once that is established, she says, "the FAA will then conduct an initial assessment of this new EU regulatory system. Once this evaluation is completed, we expect to enter into a transitional agreement with the European Commission (EC) that would define a solid safety partnership from the outset, focused on the future. This in turn will grow into a full bilateral agreement with the EC as Europe completes its safety regulatory transition."

She plans to use global organisations, including ICAO and the International Telecommunications Union, as the forums in which to win widespread agreement on air traffic management concepts and tools that would offer "maximum international harmonisation and compatibility".

The global perspective includes safety. She says: "We're going to help developing nations, including those in Africa, develop basic infrastructures and conform to international safety standards. We will broaden our network of relationships with civil aviation authorities in developing countries." The FAA has also increased its support of ICAO safety training packages and has made a voluntary $2 million donation of support for ICAO's universal, mandatory security audits for all member states.

Blakey recently established the office of the international assistant administrator to focus exclusively on a strategic plan for the next five years, co-ordinating all FAA international efforts, especially standardisation and harmonisation efforts in safety and air traffic control. The office will measure results each quarter. Blakey went outside the FAA to choose Douglas Lavin for the post. Lavin was at American Express and earlier held executive positions at AT&T and the Commerce Department. Early in her career, Blakey was herself a Commerce spokeswoman. She recently named an FAA veteran of international affairs, Louise Maillett, as senior counsel to the administrator. A long-time FAA official, Maillett represented the FAA on ICAO issues, and helped formulate the Stage 3 noise-rule transition. She was also instrumental in creating a slot lottery at New York LaGuardia Airport to decrease delays in the summer of 2000.

Peter Goelz, a career NTSB officer who was managing director during Blakey's tenure and is now a consultant, says: "Previous FAA administrators have been distracted from the international aspects of the FAA by pressing concerns, but she is right: you absolutely have to consider the interconnectivity now. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) proves that. You have to focus on the growing importance of the alliances and the way that no one member of an alliance can be held to lowered safety standards."

As much as Blakey insisted that her focus is beyond the borders, she is still constrained by the basic reality close to home: the FAA is a large employer of a unionised workforce who have always worked as government employees. They have faced technological change with an attitude that is a blend of professional fascination with new tools and career suspicion of how any new technology could take away their work. And long-running discussion of fundamental FAA structural reform, encouraged by this Bush administration, has increased workforce suspicions.

Blakey insists that she does not favour radical change of the FAA, but stresses that it will continue its role as "a performance-based organisation, one in which every person knows how their work contributes to the agency's goals, knows the output they are expected to meet and knows if they are achieving it".

Metrics system

Her stress on metrics will face its greatest test when it deals with this workforce. FAA reform advocate Bob Poole says this is her greatest challenge, and the need to bring FAA costs under control and make them easily measurable may be the greatest obstacle to her ambitious goals for international aviation. Poole, whose Reason Foundation has long argued for FAA privatisation in some form, says: "Blakey has taken over an FAA in crisis. Its budget is out of control, thanks to sweetheart union deals."

As Ken Mead, inspector general of the Department of Transportation, has pointed out, cost-containment is the priority challenge of the FAA. Since 1998, when a new pay system was introduced, air-traffic controller personnel costs have escalated and salaries have gone up by 32-47%. Pay limits set in FAA contracts with the employees have failed to work because some 1,500 separate agreements or memoranda of understanding outside the contracts have added millions of dollars to FAA personnel costs. National Air Traffic Controllers Association president John Carr has denounced Mead's findings, but citing "the delicate status" of its contract negotiations, would not discuss his union's relationship with Blakey. Blakey tells Congress that most of the memoranda of understanding are legitimate, but members of both House and Senate committees raise the issue at almost every appearance she makes.

Blakey will spend much time before Congress this year, because this is the year Congress considers the basic statute that gives FAA continuing legal authority and status, the reauthorisation that must be concluded by the end of September. The $56 billion bill, dubbed Flight-100, is meant to run the agency for four years without any major increases in user fees. Blakey says: "Now we have an imperative, a clear mandate to increase safety and to improve capacity in our system as a whole, both on the ground and in the air."

One priority, she says, will be streamlining the agency approvals of airport infrastructure improvements. "We are not looking at diminishing the amount or indeed the quality of the analysis - especially the environmental impact analysis that we do - but we want to do it more efficiently. Even in situations that happen fairly commonly, where you have no particular significant opposition to a project, you still have a time-consuming process."

Keenly aware of the importance of preserving the Garvey legacy of better congressional relationships, Blakey has moved quickly to develop her own bonds with the legislators who determine the FAA budget in such precise detail that they can block installation of a radar at a specific site or stop funding for an individual employee group.

One of her first hires was David Balloff, a soft-spoken Tennesseean who is the chief FAA link to the Congress. He is now the government and industry affairs administrator, meaning he finds out what the airlines say they can live with and how far the legislators will let the FAA fight them. Balloff was the NTSB's chief liaison to Congress and industry.

Another recent hire is Sharon Pinkerton, who sat literally at the right hand of the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Aviation Subcommittee. Pinkerton has more than just a Hill connection: she is a certified public accountant, a skill that will help in the FAA's continuing battle to refine its cost-accounting methods.

Of course, Blakey can always turn to her own wide Capital Hill experience, to the relationships she developed in her early Washington stints at the Education and Commerce departments, in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, as the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under the first President Bush and her eight years as public affairs consultant and lobbyist during the Clinton years. In her tenure at the traffic safety administration, she faced the opposing forces of the well-organised automotive consumer groups and those of the auto industry itself. She gained applause for an independent stance when she backed stricter duty limits and longer rest periods for long-distance truckers, incurring the wrath of some in the trucking industry.

At Blakey and Associates, the lobbying and public policy affairs firm that she has since sold, one of her major projects was working with the airport community to secure federal funding and to win a years-long fight to increase the limit imposed by the FAA on the departure tax or passenger facility charge collected by individual airports. Lobbying for the airports has one tremendous advantage in "working the Hill": the case must be made in almost every congressional office, as almost every one of the 435 congressional districts has or is near an airport. This is a different task from the usual industry approach of just working a few committees.

After the Republicans returned to power, Blakey went to the safety board, where she had a baptism by fire that came with front-page exposure and national media attention. She was sworn in as NTSB chair on 26 September 2001. The board was drawn into the response to the terrorist attacks just a fortnight before, and even after that became a law enforcement investigation, she was thrust again into the limelight in early November of 2001 when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed just after takeoff from New York's JFK airport.

Emotional context

It quickly became clear that the Airbus A300-600 had not been brought down by a terrorist act, but by something more complex, and the investigation soon turned to the highly complex areas where the NTSB has deep resources, the strengths of composite materials, the physics of rapid aircraft movements and the dynamics of wind forces, wake turbulence and other technical factors. Given the emotional context - the aircraft fell into a working-class neighbourhood already devastated by the loss of many residents who were police, fire and other first responders to the World Trade Center attacks -- and given the universal fear and suspicion of terrorism, the safety board gained credit for keeping the probe from becoming a media feeding-frenzy.

Garvey, now with APCO Consultants in Washington, praises Blakey's handling of the Flight 587 investigation, both for her handling of the New York City media and for "her thorough, proactive professional communication with us at the FAA. It went a long way toward avoiding the kind of conflict that can arise in such situations."

If Blakey has mastered dealing with often unruly media, and has resources to placate an often unpredictable Congress, she still has to deal with the FAA's internal challenge. Peter Goelz, the former NTSB managing director, says: "What she needs at the FAA is a buy-in from the managers. Her management style has been a systematic approach, to listen to others to give them their say and then to decide on a goal. She has the managerial skills." And, many would add, the charm.

A public affair

Marion Blakey was born in Alabama in 1948. Her first job with the federal government came in 1985 when she took up the post of public affairs director at the Department of Education in 1985, a post she held for two years.

Since then she has worked in departments of public affairs in the administrations of presidents Reagan and Bush Sr, as well as the Department of Commerce. In 1990, Blakey entered the transport sector in the role of assistant secretary for public affairs with the Department of Transportation (DoT). By 1992 she had risen to the role of administrator of the DoT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, introducing tighter car licensing rules for teenagers and tougher prosecution of drunk drivers.

When the Clinton administration took power, Blakey joined the private sector, starting a public affairs consulting firm specialising in transport issues, which she ran until 2001 when asked by the second Bush administration to chair the National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB).

Blakey took up the reins at the FAA in September 2002, a position which she says is a role reversal from her days at the NTSB, where she issued recommendations for FAA consideration. Now, she is "responding to my own recommendations."

REPORT BY DAVID FIELD IN WASHINGTON PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAY MALLIN