Digital Fast Company

How The Government Is Working To Take Some Of The Misery Out Of Flying


Chuck Salter

June 3, 2014

Last fall, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx made a name for himself a few months into the job by approving the use of personal electronic devices throughout commercial flights, winning the love of road warriors everywhere. Yes, Foxx is that guy.

Fast Company recently sat down with Foxx to talk about why he made that move–and how he plans to further cut through bureaucracy in government.

How soon did you bring up electronics on planes?

As soon as I got here. For years the FAA had been looking at the issue from a safety perspective: Does a given device interfere with the avionic system on a plane? I encouraged our team, “Let’s get an answer here.” There wasn’t a whole lot of red tape. There was a set of policy choices that had to be understood and buttressed by the facts. The FAA did the testing to make the determination that it was safe, and we went from there.

Why was it so important to you?

I’m not unlike many people who travel. Whether you’re trying to get a project finished before you land or working on something else, you want to continue using your devices. As long as we were convinced there wasn’t going go be safety impact, there was no reason why we shouldn’t allow them.

What’s been the feedback?

I was surprised by how many people stopped me on planes or in airports to say thank you. It’s made life easier for so many people. See, government does do some good things.

As welcome as that change is, flying can be a miserable experience with delays and little information. What technologies do you think will improve things?

Next-generation avionics is taking us from World War II radar systems to 21st-century GPS systems in how air traffic moves around the country. All of the studies I’ve seen have shown that this is going to help us develop tighter routes and help airplanes use less fuel and fly more reliably, with 40-plus percent fewer delays. Who’s not for that?

How are you helping speed this along?

Part of our job with the FAA is building these foundational systems that allow these airplanes to function on a different type of tracking system, one that is GPS-based, not radar-based. The planes need the right avionics so they can talk to the ground systems, and we have to make sure that all the air traffic systems have the ground systems in place.

As you look at these various technologies in cars and planes, do you see any trends shaping the future of transportation?

One of the interesting trends is that the role of the operator will evolve. Today, if you’re flying a plane or driving a car or steering a ship, there’s a heavy reliance on the operator. Increasingly, the modality is going to direct itself based on instructions given by the operator. The question is going to be, when does the operator intervene?

When you were sworn in last year, you talked about fostering more creativity in the department. How do you do that in an organization with more than 50,000 people?

You can’t go top down. You have to go bottom up. It’s not only what are the folks who have been here for 30 years thinking, but what are the folks who’ve been here for five minutes thinking? I tell them this is not a matter of watching one person figure out how to make the department better. This is a culture we want to embed in everybody who works here. Part of seeding ideas in government and creating a culture of innovation is giving everybody the rope to be creative and come back with different answers.

Read part 1 of our conversation with Foxx, one of our 2014 Most Creative People in Business where he discusses the USDOT’s unprecedented Data Innovation Challenge and why the department wants to make vehicle-to-vehicle communication a reality.

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