Partnership In Safety
By Jerome Pendzick
The FAA’s Flight Standards Service has had to face the concept that being unionized meant it would be necessary to continue a high level of customer service while energizing the workforce to share in the burdens of mission accomplishment. This belief resulted in the creation of a partnership initiative for management and the union known as Partnership for Safety (PFS). The Western-Pacific Region of the Flight Standards Service was chosen to pioneer this initiative under the guidance of one of the developers of PFS, David C. Gilliom. Mr. Gilliom, as division manager for flight standards in this region, was ideally positioned to bring PFS to life.
As FSDOs began to work with the concepts of PFS, it became apparent to us that the use of facilitation to assist working groups in problem solving showed great promise. Accordingly, many FSDOs attempted to use the ideas behind facilitation and problem solving to help ease day-to-day FAA-industry conflict.
The typical FAA customer has been socialized to believe that the FAA is reactionary in its dealings and not interested in dialogue over issues that are important to the stakeholders involved. The additional misperception that FAA has an uninformed, heavy-handed approach to regulatory matters exists widely in the aviation industry, as well as the public at large.
The San Diego FSDO had participated in the closing of an aerobatic box that had been authorized for years over the Ramona Airport. Some time ago, the booming growth in the surrounding community of Ramona forced the FAA and aerobatic pilots (IAC) to look for alternative sites that would allow competitive aerobatic flight and practice to continue. Borrego Valley Airport was selected as an alternative site. The community initially welcomed the aerobatic activity as it was infrequent and provided needed use of the airport. The airport was perceived as a booster for community development.
Borrego Valley airport itself was an ideal location in a remote area with a hard-surface runway. The surrounding terrain had good obstacle clearance and well-defined landmarks. This allowed aerobatic pilots to maintain flight orientation while in the many unusual attitudes of aerobatic flight.
The local community was receptive to the airport’s use, even to the point of creating a local corporation to help revive airport services. A local land developer created this corporation, the Borrego Springs Airport Improvement Corporation (BSAIC), and it applied for and received approval from the county of San Diego to manage the airport on a day-to-day basis.
BSAIC sponsored the reopening of the airport restaurant and revitalized the small FBO. The FBO sold fuel and pilot supplies, and CFIs commuting from Montgomery Field provided flight instruction. Different groups who valued the ease of operation in this remote area and the excellent flying conditions conducted aviation events several times a year. There were almost no complaints from the public about any of these operations.
It was well-known to us at the FSDO that the IAC was, for the most part, a responsible, committed organization interested in the safe continuation of aerobatic flight at Borrego Valley. Unfortunately, from time to time members of the organization, for whatever reason, believed that aerobatics was a blood sport and, as such, acted in a rude and condescending manner to local residents and other airport tenants. These instances typically were not issues where federal regulations were at issue; they were more personal conflicts over aviation issues, or courtesy issues between pilots.
Because the IAC was a diffuse organization, they could not see that ill will was building and needed some sort of catalyst to trigger confrontation. This catalyst occurred when the county received an FAA grant to bring a water line to the airport to enhance airport fire fighting capability. Installation of this water line would allow easy access to water for landowners who had previously had none. More specifically, land immediately adjacent to the airport could be developed at a much lower cost than before.
In the fall of 1999, the FSDO began to receive verbal complaints opposing the need for continuing the aerobatic box. As an aside, the behavior of some of the pilots using the box, alleged IAC members, was at issue.
After speaking with the county airports division and the IAC, I felt that a public meeting to discuss this issue and allow residents of Borrego to meet with the IAC members could prove productive. It would also serve notice on any renegade elements of a mostly cooperative organization (IAC) that continued unprofessional behavior could cost the entire membership dearly.
My initial vision was that a compromise between concerned parties was likely and would serve both the public and the FAA. I did not believe or understand the political nuances that were present.
My initial contact with Dennis Logue gave me cause for great optimism. Dennis was as committed to compromise as I was. I could see that aside from being a true gentleman, he was very concerned about aviation safety. This was the real issue.
Dennis and I had several conversations about possible approaches to the community that would put the IAC in a positive light. I was unsparing in my harsh criticism of the small ego-driven group of pilots that was besmirching the reputation of the IAC with childish behavior. Dennis, gentleman that he was, agreed and admitted that these people were as much a problem for the club as they were to the FAA and the residents of Borrego. To his credit, Dennis worked diligently to improve IAC disciplinary procedures, tune up the club bylaws, and sensitize the membership to needed attitude adjustments.
The Borrego side was more unfocused. The community seemed to be galvanized by residents who believed that aviation had no place in the valley’s natural surroundings, regardless of its past record. With few exceptions, the perception of airplanes as an environmental disaster was a real problem. A side issue to the conflict was the reluctance of any one group to speak publicly for the community. Privately, one individual was categorically opposed to continued use of the airport for aerobatic flight. Coincidentally, this person is alleged to have much to gain if the aerobatic club were barred from continued use of the airport.
The first public meeting was conducted at the FSDO with the FAA in the role as facilitator/mediator, and key representatives of the community, IAC, and county government were present. I requested that the participants try to keep their comments focused to the problem at hand and avoid personal attacks.
The meeting became "frank and direct" to use a diplomatic paradigm. Some posturing did occur, but for the most part, both sides attempted to present their views. The meeting ended with the understanding that the county supervisor that represented Borrego Valley would speak for the residents. It was understood by all that standing FAA guidance (FAA Order 8700.1) allowed veto power of aerobatic boxes by local airport management. My hope was that this veto would become unnecessary. Foolish me!
At the end of the meeting, I stated that I thought that both sides had engaged in meaningful dialogue and that we should meet one more time to present formal proposals for how the waiver could be implemented. To relieve the time pressure of the approaching waiver expiration (December 31, 1999), I informed both parties that I would unilaterally extend the existing waiver for 30 days to allow for a second resolution meeting.
In the interim I was presented with a letter from the county of San Diego that removed approval for an aerobatic box at Borrego Valley airport. This effectively killed the IAC waiver renewal. I was angry because up to this point I had felt that all parties were willing to listen to reason and respect the rights of each other. After several heated conversations, I quickly determined that politics, not the public interest, was to be the order of the day.
Dennis, however, was very sanguine. He accepted that there would be those who would try to twist this situation. I told him that FAA would make every attempt to "foster and promote" aviation within the context of some "peace and quiet" for the local community. Dennis never questioned the need for this. His understanding, as home owner and concerned voter, that we all need some peace in our lives, and his willingness to recognize this for others, added to my desire to see that the IAC and all the value it added should not be snuffed out arbitrarily.
Our second public meeting was attended by the IAC, but only three members of the community attended. It appeared that the community felt that because the county had unilaterally withdrawn approval for the aerobatic box that the FAA had no choice but to deny the IAC request for renewal of the aerobatic box waiver.
From this point onward the issue left the purview of Southern California and transitioned to Washington, D.C. The IAC, with strong support from EAA national headquarters, approached the FAA national coordinator for sport aviation, Ed Robinson. In joint discussions with Ed, they determined that the operating guidance for renewal of aerobatic boxes was going to change. Specifically, the requirement for approval of aerobatic boxes by local airport management would be rescinded. Within a week of the telephone call informing us of this development, the guidance was issued.
Once I received this guidance, I immediately called all parties and scheduled another public meeting. The local residents and governmental representatives were surprised by the sudden turn of events. One representative attempted to convince Ed Robinson to reverse his new guidance. This effort failed.
Held in late February, the last meeting was well-attended. The IAC had prepared a detailed presentation that offered a major reduction in airspace use. The presentation, with its imbedded proposal for aerobatic box use, was reasonable and far-reaching. Unfortunately, the presenter, one of the more aggressive IAC members, became a lightening rod for criticism from the members of the Borrego Valley community.
Notwithstanding this development, the members of the community could not bring forth a consensus proposal to counter the IAC proposal. Community criticism seemed to coalesce around questioning the need for any aviation activity at all. Two members of the community group presented modifications to the IAC plan, and they were incorporated into the renewed waiver.
After two and a half hours of discussion we took a short break. Prior to this break I requested that anyone wishing to present detailed comments to the IAC proposal could forward them to me by mail within seven days. I would consider every proposal on its merits. The entire community delegation took this opportunity to depart. One representative of the community threatened dire legal action against the FAA.
Members of the media who attended the meeting presented a balanced account of the proceedings. Some bias was present in pro-aviation trade papers. The local community paper provided unbiased coverage of all the meetings, even to the point of upbraiding the local citizenry for not participating at greater levels.
The renewed waiver was signed and issued on March 1, 2000. After the last public meeting, I had several conversations with Dennis Logue. He simply requested that I continue to be fair and that I consult him if I was at all confused about the proposal the club had made and how to implement it. I received a call from one of the more aggressive IAC members who attempted to compel me to alter the waiver process to the benefit of the IAC. Because this individual had shown little concern for the positions of the community of Borrego Valley, I rejected his inappropriate end-run tactics. Speaking with Dennis about this incident, I was not surprised to learn that his patience with this individual was at an end, and we both agreed that I handled his poor behavior correctly
In the four months that the renewed waiver has been in effect, there have been no public complaints about aerobatic activity at Borrego Valley airport.
Though sometimes trying, this process was educational to FAA in that industry-government cooperation for the public good can prevail if the stakeholders use good business sense, work in the open, and provide room for disagreement by all parties. I learned that compromise is the true order of the day and that what appears as a common-sense solution should be very flexible because eventually someone will try to skew a decision for personal gain. Working with Dennis Logue was a real benefit because he was approachable, honorable, and poised enough to tackle the tough issues.
That’s partnership. This article first appeared in Sport Aerobatics magazine.
Reprinted with permission of the authors.