Jane Garvey: A Steep Climb At The Faa

But her methodical approach is reforming the FAA

When Jane F. Garvey took charge of the Federal Aviation Administration last summer, she stepped into a bunker of former military flyboys more interested in promoting the airline industry than in policing it. "I was hoping they would salute," Garvey says with a laugh. "They've disappointed me."

Although Garvey has kept her sense of humor, the problems besetting the FAA are no laughing matter. She is struggling to overhaul an agency with a hidebound managerial culture, aging air traffic control equipment, and too few resources. At the same time, the explosion in air travel is making the skies seem scarier these days.

Not that she hasn't had some success. On June 15, she nailed down a five-year contract with air traffic controllers that will boost their numbers and increase pay for those who cut down on errors in the most stressful towers. That could help the FAA entice controllers to take hard-to-fill jobs in the busiest airports.

"Jane Garvey did something no other administrator had done: She listened to controller concerns," Michael P. McNally, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers, said after the new contract was announced.

Garvey, 54, can use all the goodwill she can find. Her immediate challenge: Fill critical slots that have been vacant for almost a year, including the No.2 position at the agency. The gaps in personnel frustrate safety groups, the aviation industry, and Garvey herself. "Frankly, it's difficult to attract good industry people for what we can pay," she says, adding that the FAA's sorry reputation doesn't help.

Then there's a long overdue equipment modernization problem. In June, radar systems lost Air Force One and Air Force Two in the same week. Then, days later, Air Force Two again. The incidents followed reports that two commercial jets had nearly collided over New York's LaGuardia Airport. Still, Garvey says she's having trouble getting more money from Congress, which is among the FAA's toughest critics.

GROUNDED. Garvey's progress has been slow, but she's picking up speed. Following through on her goal to stress safety as a top priority, she grounded thousands of Boeing 737s on Mother's Day to inspect the wings for faulty wiring after inspectors found worn fuel tank wires on a handful of jets.

She has also changed the agency's system for conducting inspections. In the past, FAA inspectors routinely checked jets for mechanical problems. Under a new program, inspectors will be assigned to specific airlines and will be charged with monitoring not just a jet's mechanics, but the company's entire safety and maintenance system. Inspectors will evaluate how airlines maintain their planes instead of simply checking to make sure a jet's wing flaps work properly. And Garvey has teamed up with the industry to implement an alarm system that will warn pilots if, for example, they're about to fly into the side of a mountain.

Garvey, who has served as director of the Massachusetts public works department and acting head of the Federal Highway Administration, is methodically dispelling the early perception that she wasn't up to the FAA's top job. She figures bold actions--like ordering rudder assembly inspections of 1,500 Boeing Co. jetliners on June 15--will eventually silence critics. "If I'm not sure about something or something instinctively or intuitively doesn't seem right, I'll check it out. I don't think I've made one decision yet that's been based [solely] on the recommendations of one or two people," Garvey says.

TOO COZY? One reason for her positive reviews is her prodigious use of a low-tech device--the telephone. The open lines have even endeared her to the National Transportation Safety Board, long critical of the FAA's deferential attitude toward the industry it is supposed to monitor. "Before Jane got there, I'm not sure the communication was the best between the two agencies," says Peter Goelz, NTSB managing director, with no small degree of understatement. It hasn't hurt that she has become fast friends with Goelz, who also has roots in New England.

Garvey's keep-in-touch style is winning points with the industry, too. During May's 737 inspections, she headed off complaints that she was too hard on airlines. "Jane Garvey is very careful to communicate and coordinate and give us a chance to respond," says Chester "Chet" Ekstrand, Boeing's chief lobbyist.

Garvey's outreach to industry has been jarring for some, particularly because the FAA's pro-airline sympathies have long riled critics. But that hasn't stopped her from bonding with Carol B. Hallett, president of the Air Transport Assn., which represents the nation's major carriers. And in her speeches, Garvey promises to work closely with industry. "Excuse me, but that's not the problem," says Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Dept. inspector general who quit in 1996 in protest over lax standards at the FAA.

Nevertheless, Schiavo credits Garvey with fighting strong headwinds that make any change at the FAA difficult. To help clear more cobwebs, Garvey hopes to name a deputy later this summer. "You've got people there burrowed in the hallways," says one industry observer. And they've outlasted many previous FAA heads who failed to shake up the place. Good thing Garvey has four years left. She'll need every minute.

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