Air traffic control reform hits turbulence in Congress

Congress still faces the decision whether to privatize air traffic control responsibilities and the jobs of 30,000 federal employees.

Shutterstock image. Air Traffic Control. Image credit: hxdbzxy / Shutterstock.com
 

With the expiration of the continuing resolution and reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration looming, Congress still faces the decision whether to privatize air traffic control responsibilities and 30,000 federal employees out from under government control.

Chairman of the House Transportation Committee Rep. Bill Shuster's (R-Pa.) bill to spin off air traffic control operations to a nonprofit, nongovernmental entity, which has been endorsed by President Donald Trump, advanced out of committee. But earlier in October, Shuster said on the House floor he planned to amend the bill before a full vote.

Spinning off air traffic control was proposed under the Clinton administration's effort to reinvent government. Nongovernmental systems are currently deployed in Canada and dozens of other countries worldwide.

Oct. 30, Committee Ranking Member Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), an ardent opponent to FAA privatization, circulated a Congressional Budget Office estimate that Shuster's bill would increase the deficit by almost $100 billion over the next 10 years as well as a Congress Research Service report that projected the bill's passage would trigger sequestration.

Members of Congress from both chambers and parties remain unconvinced of the need for change. The Senate appropriation subcommittee rejected the proposal for privatization for fiscal year 2018 and boosted FAA funding over fiscal year 2017 levels by $563 million, including a $1.1 billion investment in NextGen.

At a Nov. 1 Brookings Institute event, representatives of a local airport and an air traffic controllers' union made the pitch for Shuster's bill.

"In the past, I probably would not have been a supporter," said Eric Frankl, executive director of the Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., adding that his support of Shuster's bill is "not a reflection on the FAA," but rather of "their bosses -- the legislators and the executive branch."

Patricia Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, agreed. “I think we would be in a different place” if Congress could pass appropriations bills on time, she said.

James Coons, senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, argued that the current system is already the safest in the world. He said that the transition to a private entity would put too much power in the hands of major airline representatives, would hurt small and rural airports and may not reduce airport delays. Coons also argued the years-long transition period proposed in the bill could disrupt recent progress made on NextGen.

James Burnley, a former secretary of the Department of Transportation who has lobbied Congress on behalf of American Airlines on multiple aviation issues including air traffic control reform for his firm Venable LLP, questioned NextGen's progress and even whether such a big undertaking could progress smoothly under federal procurement regulations.

At the request of Shuster and DeFazio, Transportation's inspector general compiled an update in October on the status of the NextGen system.

That report found that FAA is making "significant progress" on the NextGen project, which FAA hopes can provide a modernized air traffic system as soon as 2025, but that the agency hasn't developed a detailed plan to mitigate risks, involved industry in its decision-making and resolved recommendations still open from 2014.

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