The FAA As Shakedown Artist: Why The U.S. Can’t Build Great Things Anymore

The U.S. takes longer to build projects, and spends more to build similar projects, than other countries. A new example from the FAA is a great illustration of why. Here’s what the FAA has required from SpaceX to move forward with its Starship rocket program – and the government is actually bragging about it in a press release.

SpaceX will coordinate with a “qualified biologist” on lighting inspections to minimize the impact on sea turtles, operate an employee shuttle between the city of Brownsville and the facility, and perform quarterly cleanups of the local Boca Chica Beach.

The company will also contribute to local education and preservation efforts — including preparing a historical context report of the events of the Mexican War and the Civil War that took place in the area as well as replacing missing ornaments on a local historical marker. The company will also make annual contributions of $5,000 each to organizations that protect ocelots and endangered birds of prey, as well as a state recreational fishing program.

Need I mention that to get to this point the FAA has taken more than a year and a half in its review? And that’s for a “Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact” that avoids having to go through an Environmental Impact Statement.

There are too many veto points in any project. In development, environmental review created too much ‘citizen participation’. Large-scale projects drag on for years and cost far more than their counterparts in Europe. Federal agencies signing off on projects add too many costs, too (so do local governments extracting concessions from developers, which limits how much housing gets built and raises the cost of housing).

Government-mandated charitable donations to favored groups? An “historical context report of the events of the Mexican War and the Civil War” and “replacing missing ornaments on a local historical marker”? This is why it’s so hard to have nice things.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This a why empires collapse in the end: the bureaucracy has simply become too large, too corrupt, and too counterproductive.
    I fully expect that by the end of this decade, the federal system will have collapsed and people/states have taken matters in their own hands.

  2. Banana Republics are extremely well known for their shakedowns. We’re now a Banana Republic. ☹️☹️☹️

  3. Just make it like your neighbor to the south: let SpaceX line the pockets of a few in govt and fire off mussels when and where they want. Musk is the hero of the GOP now so no stopping him now.

  4. Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.

  5. Another FAA example is changing from low to no lead gasoline for piston driven aircraft. While understandably everyone wants fuel that is safe to use in older engines (and that’s most of the General Aviation fleet) this has been dragging on for decades, and every time a prospective replacement gets close to acceptance the process resets.

    There are unfortunately many similar examples from all government agencies; perhaps the people willing to take responsibility finally leave in frustration due to the levels of approval they have to go through, or maybe bureaucracies simply attract people who are most comfortable not making deep decisions. Or the press and politicians distort decisions to the point where everybody is scared to move. Or the systems could simply be so clumsy that despite the best intentions in the world nothing gets done fast.

    The messes of our tax and immigration systems certainly show how bad this can get, and even something as simple as ending testing for inbound passengers took months to move. I don’t know what can be done. Dictatorships often become be even more inefficient and a supposed strongman or reformer isn’t going to fix anything at the working level–when threatened bureaucracies simply lock up and hunker down. Maybe each position could be reviewed every few years, but that just becomes petty politics and personality rewards. Perhaps in the end the Greeks had the right idea, and any government bigger than a city just won’t be all that efficient. Decentralizing authority could be the best answer, but good luck doing that for something like building a spaceship.

  6. All of this talk of protecting ocilots reminds me of one of my favorite jokes:
    “Q:How do you titilate an ocilot?
    A. Ossilate its tits alot.”

  7. Fred Mosher, acclaimed professor of government affairs at the University of Virginia, talked about the “triad of power” in government. One element of that triad is the non-political career administrator. Whether it is the FAA or the local building permit office, these administrators wield power. And, while we bemoan our American administrators, those in other countries bemoan their administrators. If you think we got it bad, just go to France.

  8. In my town, it is extremely complex to cut down one tree. It is easier to let the tree fully die than to stop tree diseases. This is why the US can’t build great things anymore. Red tape.

  9. Right now the biggest thing the airlines want from the FAA is for them to properly staff ATC facilities. Granted, airlines are struggling w/ their own staffing issues but when airlines do all they can and then the FAA doesn’t get its staffing right, all of the airlines’ efforts at trying to improve their operations are for naught.

  10. None of this is news. In the 70’s, my father was fairly high up at GSA and repeatedly commented that all government projects cost at least 3 times as much as a private industry comparable project. While a lot was red-taped related, much of it was also due to contractors knowing they could double or triple the bid just because it was the government

  11. Georgie Bush suggested we learn Mandarin with a laugh as his father declared the New World Order. They’ve been at it for awhile. It’s pretty depressing.

  12. I’m surprised our federal government didn’t demand 50% female employees, and percentages for LGBTQia and ethnic minorities.

    Excess governmental micromanagement is pushing us towards fascism or communism.

  13. Hi! I work in the space industry.

    SpaceX and it’s fanbase would prefer that SpaceX not be regulated at all. FAA is slow sure – but nothing in this requirement is particularly overburdensome or surprising. A properly regulated market and government support (e.g. massive NASA and DoD contracts) is exactly why SpaceX has built the great things that they have.

    Stay in your lane, Gary.

  14. Too bad we can’t have German efficiency in our infrastructure projects. See: Berlin-Brandenburg airport

  15. @Gary – In what way is there a shakedown involved here? A shakedown is a demand for a bribe. If you want to curse government bureaucracy, go ahead, but for such an erudite person as yourself to intentionally apply a misnomer like that demeans you, the FAA, and the country as a whole. You’re better than that.

  16. @Bob, that’s so funny and sad. What you see as okay and normal is the problem. Gary’s “lane” is as rightly concerned citizen. We should want our government to behave better than a banana republic. The viewpoint you express is what dooms is to it.

  17. Ed, if the federal government breaks down that will be the least of our problems. I expect a major war during the confusion to make sure we stay down for good.

  18. The US does somethings really well. They also do things really well. Who has labelled the US a super power? I don’t know. When one peels away the skin there are huge issues. This country is on cruise control. They don’t act they only react. It’s to late then. The US is only as good as their leader. The leader today is not a leader. This is the real US folks. Companies sell out to the Chinese. The Communist Chinese are raping us from all sides. They work with and in the US companies then steal their secrets. I live here in the US and I am deftly afraid for this country.

  19. This is why high speed rail can never happen without some kind of permit reform. If you think a permit for one spot is hard, a continuous line is much harder because a problem at any point along the path breaks the entire path and restarts the permitting clock at many new locations. And then you end up with a lot of customer steel you had to order with long lead times rusting in the storage lot and a lot of plans that were made in detail by high paid engineers having to be redone because of changes to path and rules etc over years of delays. It is ironic that ultimately keystone pipeline and high speed rail are stopped by the same thing but only one interest group is allowed to blame that thing so we have to pretend that engineering challenges and lack of planning and budgeting are stopping rail, not the impossibility of hitting a target that never stops moving for permitting.

  20. Leff gets in the very long line of Texans now genuflecting to Musk. No mention of the SLS or Ariane programs.

  21. ever since elon stopped enabled the democrat fascists they have got total war on him and his companies.

    Democrats and leftists are a threat to humanity.

  22. @ Gary

    So what exactly are you complaining about, Gary?!

    Am I reading the background correctly – looks like a major project has gone through an environmental assessment process and certain mitigations have been proposed that are needed in order for the licence to operate to be granted – no?!

    If this is indeed the case, it would be entirely in keeping with a number of major projects (with multi billion dollar capital works budgets) that I have personally consulted on in a number of different countries, including Australia, Papua New Guinea and The Philippines, under development by some the world’s largest multinational engineering and resources companies (including the largest engineering company based in the US).

    The environmental assessment is generally part of a broader program under the banner “sustainable development”. It is usual international practice to identify potential environmental impacts and devise mitigations. It is also usual international practice to identify community impacts and devise a program which offers something to the local community.

    This is entirely in keeping with GLOBAL STANDARDS!

    Crucially, if the project proponent needs any finance from the global banking community, said bankers will demand that internationally recognised sustainable development standards are in play before they fund the project.

    You can read this for yourself by searching out the relevant information published by the IFC (International Finance Corporation) – check also the Equator Principles based upon the IFC’s performance standards adopted voluntarily by more than 90 banks (“intended to serve as a common baseline and risk management framework for financial institutions to identify, assess and manage environmental and social risks when financing projects”).

    Also to quote:

    “…The Equator Principles (EP) apply globally and to all industry sectors. An EPFI must apply the EP to any new Project that meets the below criteria: Project Finance Advisory Services where total Project capital costs are US$10 million or more. Project Finance with total Project capital costs of US$10 million or more….”

    SO…irregardless of whatever local state or national environmental permitting that may be required on a local level, if finance is required by any global project, you would entirely expect an environmental and social sustainable development program to be part of standard international business practice.

    Crucially, it’s the global banking community that is driving the basic standards (defined performance criteria) in such matters. Basically the people,e wit the money are saying that you don’t get to shite on the environment and impacted communities.

    Now, arguably, if the local permitting agency is seeking remedies which far exceed such global practice, you might have cause to ask whether said mitigations are excessive.

    BUT, no doubt most (almost all) of your posters above are spewing their typically highly ignorant opinion on matters that they have no experience or knowledge.

    Love your travel articles, but on this occasion, per one comment above, yes, Gary, stick to your lane, or provide the global context against which to mount your facile argument.

    For those that agree with @Gary, one piece of salient advice – MAGBA – Make America Great Britain Again!

    Incidentally, we now know why US dropped pre-departure testing when it did – it had to get ahead of NZ’s decision to do such!!!

  23. @ Greg

    Sure GF can mount an opinion, but is clearly ain’t his lane in this particular case (see response currently awaiting moderation).

  24. And in the meantime the birds, especially the migratory ones, are on their own when it comes to wind farms and the giant bird swatters.
    I Love U-235

  25. Gary, I also work in the Space industry and assure you all launch vendors face environmental mitigations clauses on every project. To a lessor or greater degree depending upon a variety of factors. This is nothing new and there are sound reasons for it.

    It used to be that the mitigations for the most part were purely environmental – nesting turtle disturbances, etc. But given the evolving culture sensitivities of the times, mitigations now typically extend to preserving educational heritage of the land and peoples where facilities are built and impacted by flights.

  26. @ One Trippe

    Cue the t*RUMP idiotope: “I know more about wind than you do…It’s extremely expensive, kills all the birds, it’s very intermittent, it’s got a lot of problems.”

    Kills all the birds. Case closed. Guaranteed the right wing nut jobs will feast on that without stopping to ask themselves whether there is any actual truth in anything his infallible highness spews.

    Yes, birds die. But if you are really concerned about the fate of your birds, then get rid of your feral cats. They kill an estimated 10,000 times more birds than wind farms. Then work out how to mark you windows so they don’t fly into them. They kill an estimated 2500 more birds than and farms. Take more care when driving – an estimated 1,000 times more birds die in vehicle collisions than wind farms. And so on.

    Crucially, since this is about due process, conduct a well researched environmental and social impact assessment for your project. That would be prudence in the eyes of some, but evidently needless red tape in the eyes of many commentators herein. It does allow you to identify and mitigate environmental and social impacts, whatever they be on project by project basis.

    Obviously, the pros and cons of nuclear energy are endlessly debated. Is there anything new to add to that debate? Suffice to ask, if an advanced democratic country like Japan can’t get it right, who are you going to trust to run a safe and effective power program and ensure spent fuel doesn’t end being enriched to weapons grade (i.e, who are you going to sell uranium to)?

  27. For most things here, it’s perfectly sane.

    A company is doing a project that massively interferes with the local wildlife and environment. In order to approve that, they need to do some consessions in order to improve things.

    I can’t seem the major issue here. A bit odd about the historical parts, but I haven’t looked into that part. But all environmental requirements are very understandable

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