Charles Keegan: The yin and yang of tech management
Charles Keegan, FAA tech leader
Henrik G. DeGyor
Charles Keegan calls himself a geek, but if he is, he's a geek with an important mission.
As the Federal Aviation Administration's associate administrator for research and acquisitions'a position he took over in April'Keegan oversees research, acquisition, integration, development and deployment for air traffic control systems. He supervises the work of 2,000 employees at FAA headquarters and the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J.
Keegan also directs the agency's Operational Evolution Plan. The 10-year, $11.5 billion strategy covers systems and procedures intended to increase airspace capacity by 30 percent.
A pilot himself, Keegan has managed quality assurance and training programs, and supervised systems and acquisition teams for the bulk of his 23 years at FAA. Before his current post, he was head of FAA's Free Flight Office.
He graduated from Daniel Webster College with a bachelor's degree in air traffic control management, aviation management and transportation management.GCN: You wear two hats at the Federal Aviation Administration: associate administrator for research and acquisitions and executive director of the Operational Evolution Plan. How do you manage both?
KEEGAN: The OEP is within the research and acquisition arena. It allows me to maintain a focus on the services we are delivering and the benefits we are providing to the user community and the public.
It's easy to get focused on boxes and software, but with the OEP, I have to maintain why we are doing it, what we are delivering and if people are getting to their destinations better because of it. In reporting to the leadership at FAA, that's how we are measuring the progress. It brings an incredible sense of mission to this organization as well as myself.
I like technology, but we have to make sure that we are not doing it for technology's sake.
How do I manage it? I have a great OEP staff and an incredible research and acquisition staff. They have established the correct relationships. What the OEP and R&A bring together is the ability to communicate what the service deliveries are as well as what the engineering and technical practices are supposed to be. It's a nice melding of both areas.GCN: What plans do you have for FAA's research and acquisitions office?
KEEGAN: Over the last year, we have had to make a shift to a new infrastructure. We need new things in the back room to be able to support the new generation of air traffic control systems. So my focus is on establishing a clear set of priorities and executing what we said we would.
We must make sure we put the right things in the back room to enable the new technology to sit on top of it.
We are also providing our technicians the tools and the ability to execute large-scale programs.
We are speeding up as we address capacity and safety issues. There are two areas that we are focusing on: the technical and programmatic issues, and people issues. We are also trying to set the stage for the next few years.GCN: You have been with FAA for 23 years, starting as an air traffic controller. How does that help you in your job?
KEEGAN: The controllers have been FAA's main service providers, and I have not forgotten what that was like. That gives me some clarity and a fundamental basis to understand what the intent is and why we are doing a lot of these things.
It's always in the back of my mind that there is a human in the loop here. It's a person who has to execute and make command decisions. Information has to be right and secure. Air traffic controllers need to get that information without being overwhelmed by it.
I think understanding the role of the person in air traffic control helps me make sure that the teams doing technology changes take human factors into account'the abilities and skills of humans. It's my advantage, and I am trying to use it the best way that I can.GCN: What are the latest developments in the Operational Evolution Plan?
KEEGAN: There are two changes in the OEP. It's now a rolling 10-year plan, and we are taking into account the implications of Sept. 11.
Air traffic is still lighter than it was before the terrorist attack, but during the day'particularly in the Midwest'it's busier than it has ever been. We have not been able to figure out why that is, but we are also seeing growth in the number of regional airlines. That affects the way we operate the system, so there is a need for greater capacity.
The OEP breaks into four pieces. If each piece functions as planned, we'll get a mountain of additional capacity: 31 percent. We are a little bit ahead of the curve, and we would like to stay there.
We've had a number of positive pieces. There is a new runway at Detroit. We have completed the deployment of the Traffic Management Advisor system for Free Flight Phase 1 at seven sites.
We are in a period where the OEP represents an investment by airspace users for avionics. Avionics equipment helps pilots navigate by using ground-based radar and communications methods such as the Controller Pilot Data Link Communications, which is a secure, fast, always-available system similar to e-mail.
We've done a lot of our part on the ground, and airlines have to do theirs by equipping aircraft with the system. Cash is going to be an issue.
We have trials going in Miami with CPDLC. We have American Airlines as the lead. They are equipping airplanes and have just finished certification.
Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines are on the path to do the same and have submitted letters of commitment. Even during times when we are in difficult financial situations and economics are extremely complex, people understand the value of what we are doing.GCN: Many of the OEP projects depend on contributions from the airline industry. But several carriers are in a financial tailspin. What does that mean for FAA's plans?
KEEGAN: The government has a little more flexibility than the airlines do. We are trying to be careful in how and when we expect carriers to invest and what returns we expect on the investment.
We have not changed any plans yet. We need to stay focused and execute when we said we would. We have to maintain the confidence that we have with the community'that we are still proceeding and we will be ready with the available capacity when the industry returns to normal.GCN: How does FAA approach decision-making?
KEEGAN: We use a set of tools at the Air Traffic Command and Control Center at Herndon, Va. We also have adopted a philosophy of how we use the information from these tools with the members of the community.
We also collaborate with the community every day. It's how we maintain consensus, how we make sure what we are doing is consistent with what they believe the future of aviation is going to be.
Herndon is the nerve center for how we collaborate. Very early in the morning, everybody gets on the phone, and we see how the weather will move that day. We have agreed on the tools and the strategies associated with the weather movement, also called 'play.'
That play is how the aircraft will move through the system'in and around or away from severe weather. There are representatives from the airlines, the center and the military. They all agree on how they will move on the play. They update the play every hour.
This process has yielded a reduction in traffic and delays. We think it's very, very positive and effective.
It's not easy, and we experience some glitches, but overall it's a tremendously powerful process to make sure that we are moving together. It's not just about FAA; it's about users and how we play together.GCN: What challenges does FAA face?
KEEGAN: One of the main challenges is the breadth, the amount of programs.
We have to continually manage change to make sure that everything works out right. We've modernized. We know how to do this. We have made significant strides in our ability to execute modernization programs and to make them go rather quickly. We have set the bar very high on how to execute these programs, and we need to continue that.
We are focusing on 19 or so incredibly important programs for us to be successful. There are well over 100 programs in our investment portfolio, so just keeping them all straight is extremely difficult.