EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Charlie Leader, JPDO

.Fly NextGen: What went right with NextGen in 2008?

Charlie Leader: One thing, I think, is the establishment of a fully functioning Joint Planning Environment that links together all the fundamental planning documents, and allows people involved in the NextGen effort to explore the interrelationships inside the environment and approach the complexity in a way that can be usefully managed. There’s been criticism in the past that the JPDO has created these incredibly complex plans that are not accessible to people. I think, first of all, to criticize the complexity is relatively naïve, because this is an incredibly complex project and being able to understand the complexity — and in particular to be able to identify and understand the interrelationships and interdependencies — is critical, particularly when working across agencies.

Now that we have this automated tool [http://jpe.jpdo.gov/ee/], which will continue to improve, I think it’s a real breakthrough. As we get the quick start functionality in place, it will become much more accessible, it will allow us to engage more people, and will rapidly mature the product.

Fly NextGen: What occurred on the policy level?

Charlie Leader: The JPDO Senior Policy Committee matured its role dramatically during 2008, and became recognized as an unusual governance body within the federal government. For example, in the beginning of December we took part in a multi-agency surveillance summit — the surveillance issue is fundamental not only to NextGen, but also to homeland defense and national security. And the recommendation that came out of that summit was that the SPC become the governance body and coordinate the work going forward to develop a government-level concept of operations and a national enterprise architecture. And I think a year before that, this idea would not have occurred to anyone, or if it had been suggested they would have thought, “No, that’s well beyond the capabilities.”

Fly NextGen: You’ve talked about having a breakthrough around weather – what exactly happened?

Charlie Leader: Well, what we did is recognize that we have an investment problem as well as just a systems problem, because the National Weather Service, the Air Force, and the FAA were all working on what they call “weather cube”, the ability to do four-dimensional predictions. And that’s not good government. So, over the last year or so, they created an executive weather panel within JPDO that has representatives from the Air Force, the FAA, NOAA, and the National Weather Service itself. So, working together, they were able to define a way forward and to develop a plan to integrate their activities.

So, what’s basically happened is NOAA and the National Weather Service have taken leads in developing the basic weather cube itself, and the agreement is that then the individual user communities in the agencies will develop their own tools to accept that information apply it in their own unique ways. And that’s going to involve the FAA reducing its investment and NOAA and the Weather Service increasing theirs. So, a level of trust that has to take place there as well as the coordination across the agencies.

Fly NextGen: How can the JPDO help break that type of logjam or stalemate?

Charlie Leader: Well, we try to bring transparency to the issues so that we can make a fact-based decision or help facilitate a fact-based decision. The weather is a good example. Eighteen months ago the general consensus was this is just in the “too hard to do” category. You know, the FAA has always done the weather this way. The Weather Service has always done weather that way. The Air Force is interested in aviation weather. The Navy is primarily interested in oceanic weather. And so their focuses are all different so you have to go into these complex areas and say, “Ok, you’re right, your mission is more interest in oceanic weather than anyone else, so we’re not going to take that away from you. You apply those tools, but look — back here, when you go to the front end of the system, why should you be uniquely collecting data that the Weather Service is also collecting?

Fly NextGen: Broadly speaking, are you seeing a increased willingness to try to take on more challenging intergovernmental missions that have traditionally been seen as thankless?

Charlie Leader: I think so. That said, depending on how things go with the economy, there’s likely not going to be a generous amount of money for some of these things — and integrated surveillance probably falls into that category. Because people have known that’s been an issue for more than ten years and there is no natural governance body to resolve the problem and it’s in the “too hard to do” category. Now that there’s not enough money around and the existing infrastructure of ground-based radars is getting antiquated and is going to need increasing service life extensions and other investments.

We have an expression in JPDO — we say that agencies are playing budget chicken. So the FAA will say, “Well, we don’t really have a requirement for that so we’re not going to pay for it, but if DoD will pay for it, we’ll use it.” And DoD will say, “Well, we don’t really need — it looks to us like you need it.” So, everyone is playing budget chicken. And if we can use the SPC as the way to make visible what the actual mission requirements are and bring it to OMB who — because they control the money — can then resolve the budget chicken dilemma and help us to move things forward. At least that’s the model that we’re working with. And the early success in weather and the supportiveness of the OMB to try to rationalize the investments, I think, is a powerful lever for us to use.

Fly NextGen: So the OMB has been a good friend to the JPDO?

Charlie Leader: They’ve been a great facilitator. There is an examiner for the FAA which reports then to someone more senior who has all the transportation modes who then reports to someone who’s responsible for all national infrastructure. So, what our examiner has been able to do is to invite our partner examiners to come in and have a joint budget review. So, for example, we had our quarterly meeting with OMB about a week or two ago and we had not only the FAA examiner, but the senior level above that and we had the DOD and NASA examiners in there as well.

Fly NextGen: What’s your biggest disappointment about 2008?

Charlie Leader: The inability of the user community to speak with a unified voice on NextGen issues. I mean this extends beyond 2008, but the whole reauthorization battle over how the NextGen initiative is going to be funded has really split the user communities, and focused them on what’s separating them as opposed to what’s really unifying them.

Fly NextGen: Do you think that the nomination of Rep. LaHood is going to help or hurt this process as we move towards March, which is when Rep. Costello says he wants to move towards the House floor on reauthorization?

Charlie Leader: Well, I think it will clarify things. You know, we had the problem… it was clearly the end of the Bush administration, and no matter who won the election there would be new people and likely new views. So, there was just no event forcing a resolution. Now we’re at the beginning of an administration, which has in all likelihood, different views than the previous one… so I’m cautiously optimistic that things will start to move.

Fly NextGen: What are you looking for in a FAA Administrator?

Charlie Leader: Someone who has an appetite and ideally some experience in major organizational change management. People looking at NextGen tend to focus on the technical dimensions of it. What are you going to use GPS for? What’s ADS-B? What part of spectrum are you going to use for data-com? The real issue is: how are the people in the organizations involved are going to have to change and evolve for this to work? Because the relationships between the controllers and the airline operation centers and the flight crews, all those things are going to change. And they’re going to change at really basic levels in how they communicate, in what information is communicated, and how the human being factors into the flight deck and into the controller station. That’s the really hard part, and I think you see some of that difficulty in the conflict between the labor and management.

Fly NextGen: Controllers have complained very loudly that they are not being included in fundamental conversations about the direction the system is moving in, nor in discussions about the details of short-term modernization. Do you believe that the JPDO has done enough to reach out and include the controllers? Is there an opportunity to do more?

Charlie Leader: Well, in the long term we think that controller involvement is critical in getting this thing right and helping resolve some of the human factors issues that we know are out there. But this really is an area where it’s the FAA and the unions that have to provide leadership, because we are really not part of that process. And, you know, what falls out of that agreement or lack of agreement between labor and management — that affects how we can interact with them, because our interaction is driven by the nature of the contractual agreement between those parties.

Fly NextGen: If I understand you correctly, you have no leeway or latitude to bring in controllers to the table to share their views and to provide guidance and feedback?

Charlie Leader: That’s correct. The relationship between the FAA and the unions is not one that the JPDO is involved in.

Fly NextGen: And you can’t have your own relationship beyond that? You depend on the FAA to mediate any relationship that you might want to establish with the controllers?

Charlie Leader: That’s right. Now, we have former controllers involved in our activities, so we have access to the expertise. But, we would welcome a better relationship between the controllers and the FAA, and once that’s resolved we would hope that there would be more active controllers engaged over at JPDO and with FAA working on this.

Fly NextGen: I want to shift gears and ask you about the executive order that came down in November. How do you feel about the way that it turned out?

Charlie Leader: Well, I think it’s helpful for what we’re trying to do. It’s unfortunate, of course, that it happened in the last couple of months of an administration. But, it’s all to the good, and what it does is it reinforces that fact that the Secretary of Transportation has the lead role for NextGen — that it is more than just an FAA initiative, that it involves the other players, that they have to be actively engaged. And so that’s a good precedent to have on the table when the new administration comes in.

Fly NextGen: Will this involve the creation of another office within DOT? How would that impact your work?

Charlie Leader: I really don’t know. I think the intent, as I understand it, was to give the Secretary of Transportation direct access to individuals representing the members of Senior Policy Committee. If that is in effect what it does, it would be very helpful. One solution would be — given that the JPDO already has assigned to it members of all the partners – that our office could in fact fulfill that responsibility.

Fly NextGen: So there is a possibility that JPDO could in fact take on that additional function?

Charlie Leader: Well, the Secretary could easily do that. To me, that would be the most straightforward way, the quickest way to accomplish it. Given that we already exist and we already have working relationships with fairly senior people from the other partners.

Fly NextGen: Are there any issues that you feel have been misunderstood by the general public, related to what the JPDO is trying to achieve?

Charlie Leader: Well, I guess my greatest frustration is the communication issue itself. Because, if you simplify it for the general public, then the user communities — who are knowledgeable about the national air space system – will say, “there’s no substance here.” And then you put together an integrated work plan and they say, “there’s too much detail here. We can’t understand what you’re doing because there’s so much detail.” It’s just the nature of having so many stakeholders who are often so conflicted about some element of what might be changed to get to the NextGen system.

Fly NextGen: Fundamentally, do you feel that people are trying to do the right thing?

Charlie Leader: Well, I hate to generalize, because the stakeholder community is so large and so diverse, and has so many conflicting priorities. When you sit back, everyone recognizes that the current system is broken and antiquated and we need to have a new one. When you get below that level you start to talk about, well you know, whose job is going to change, who is going to have to invest what money to do what? You know, whose mission would be changed? Who is going to have to learn how to do new things that they might not want to have to learn how to do? Who is going to be the most discomforted by the solution? And when you get down to that level, then it’s very complicated.

Fly NextGen: What are your goals for 2009?

Charlie Leader: We need to make more progress with the net-centric operations piece. The aviation information-sharing infrastructure that underpins this is just critical. We’ve made frustratingly slow progress in that area, but I think we’re poised to have that change fairly dramatically. Because DoD has now taken the lead and assigned some senior executives, and money has been invested for us to move this thing forward. So, I’m optimistic about that.

On the integrated surveillance effort, we’re trying to get SPC agreement on JPDO taking that mission and the SPC taking the governance responsibility for it. So, that will be a big change for us as well.

And of course, just the maturing of the planning environment and advancing the benefits case… the specific benefits, the quantity of them and to whom they accrue is a big part of selling this. I think that’s going to be very important to continue to mature that story so that people understand how many good things will happen as a result of this initiative.

Fly NextGen: Do you see yourself to a certain degree as a salesman?

Charlie Leader: I would say more an advocate.

Fly NextGen: Tell me what you mean by that distinction.

Charlie Leader: Well, I think a salesman implies that somehow I would or we would benefit from this. You know, a commission or something. We’re an advocate. We believe in the goodness of this initiative. We believe in the jointness of it, and we want to advocate the benefits that are accruing to all the participants if they cooperate in moving it forward.

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