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Saturday, May 1, 2004

Puzzling Times, and A Good Man

James T. McKenna

 

I didn't encounter anyone at HAI's Heli-Expo 2004 who wasn't impressed with the gathering and just a little bit giddy about the action there.

Everyone from manufacturers like Bell, Eurocopter and Sikorsky, and vendors like FLYIT Simulators to service suppliers like OuterLink seem pleased with both the numbers of folks visiting their exhibits and the quality of those visitors. Heli-Expo's attendance this year of more than 15,000 was a record.

Whether that means the helicopter industry has turned the corner remains to be seen. Indications are the U.S. and global economies are recovering from recession. A challenge now is to figure out what that means for industry.

Perhaps nowhere is that challenge more evident than in offshore support. Oil prices are higher than they have been for more than a decade. Energy companies are opening new fields off West Africa, Brazil, and the coast of Asia from India to the Russian Far East. They're venturing further out into and deeper below the Gulf of Mexico. Indications are that they even have tapped a major new field in the North Sea.

Conventional wisdom is that oil above $28 a barrel spurs exploration and production. Oil's been above that for months. Yet offshore support operators have yet to benefit. Some attribute this to a continuing trend toward less labor-intensive exploration and production techniques. Others say "spending discipline" has taken root in oil companies; they're focusing on maximizing productivity of current investments before considering new ones.

The bottom line is that, as in several other aspects of our current economic recovery, conventional wisdom doesn't seem to apply. Most indications are the economy continues to recover, yet it's not generating nearly the number of jobs or the upward pressure on prices typical of a textbook recovery. So if the rules of the old textbook don't apply, offshore support operators (and most everyone else in this industry) must figure out what the new rules are and how to win and preserve market share and achieve profitability while operating under them.

On another subject, you're lucky if you've never met John Goglia. But if you have, you're pretty lucky, too.

Goglia this month leaves his post as one of five presidential appointees to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, having served nearly nine years there. The job is a political plum presidents dole out. Goglia was named by President Clinton to two, five-year terms. It's President Bush's turn to reward someone, so Goglia's out. The NTSB, and by extension aviation safety, will be less with him gone.

Goglia is unique among NTSB appointees in many ways. He is a blue-collar guy in Washington's white-collar corridors of power. No one would ever describe him as polished or subtle. But he knows aviation, having worked more than 30 years as a mechanic. He defended airline mechanics against FAA enforcement actions as a Machinists union representative at USAir. He worked 20 years as an accident investigator for the union. If you met Goglia for the first time, the odds were something really bad had happened to you or your operation.

But if something bad had happened, Goglia was a good guy to have on your side. As a mechanic, he has seen how corners can be cut into the safety margin. He's seen how the FAA can railroad a certificate holder, yet completely overlook major safety problems. As an accident investigator, he's seen firsthand the price of such failures in blood and bodies. One knock against the guy is that he tends to tear up when talking about the need for effective safety measures. If you'd seen as many smoking holes and bodies as he has, you might tear up to. What truly makes Goglia unique among NTSB appointees is that he's actually lived and worked and survived and suffered in aviation.

Many consider the NTSB a necessary evil. But you wouldn't think that if the FAA's ever tried to take your certificate away. It is the NTSB's job to hear appeals of FAA enforcement actions. The public knows little of that. But if you were the defendant, you wanted John Goglia to be one of the five members hearing your appeal. He's fought thousands of enforcement actions, and probably had been subject to some himself. He knows that the FAA often doesn't have a case, overblows its case, or fails to understand the factors and the true safety implications of the alleged violation. So he asked hard questions of the FAA to make sure all the holes were filled in. If they were-if you truly had screwed up, knowingly or incompetently and in a way that threatened safety-you were done. Goglia would love to pull your ticket himself. But if you hadn't-if you'd made an honest mistake, or if the FAA inspector and lawyers had-Goglia would open wide one of the holes in the FAA's case and make its lawyers walk through it and out the door. Goglia did that for mechanics, for pilots, for air traffic controllers, for any certificate holder appealing the FAA's charges. I doubt most of them know how lucky they were that he had.

As a union guy, John Goglia had been a vigorous advocate of mechanics. When he got on the NTSB, he became a vigorous advocate for everyone who flies. He asked tough, pointed questions about accidents and safety issues, and he demanded that they be answered. In the end, he helped keep us all honest and safe, and for that we are all very lucky. Once he's moved back into the private sector, he will be missed.

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