There are serious obstacles to moving air traffic operations away from the FAA, despite calls to do so in the president's budget.
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The idea of moving air traffic control operations outside the Federal Aviation Administration has been kicked around for decades, and on the heels of the Trump administration's budget proposal, a former Transportation Department secretary and a former senator argue the momentum now exists to make the shift.
James Burnley and former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who co-chair the Eno Center for Transportation's NextGen working group, made the case at the think tank's March 21 event that true air traffic control reform will remain grounded without such a shift.
The project to modernize the country's air traffic control systems known as NextGen, which is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars across its lifetime, "is one of the more important issues the country faces right now," Burnley said.
"We're not capable, really, of moving with any speed at all towards [NextGen] unless we have" governance outside FAA control, Dorgan said. "If we don't address the systemic challenges, we won't get the right outcomes."
"We are running one of the most complicated, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week businesses … under federal personnel procurement rules that are written primarily for agencies that put out regulations and pass out money," Burnley said.
Dorgan and Burnley also have skin in the game. Dorgan has lobbied Congress on behalf of American Airlines on "air traffic control reform and related issues," generating an estimated $240,000 in fees for his firm Arent Fox LLP in 2016 alone, according to disclosure documents. Burnley has also lobbied Congress on behalf of American Airlines on multiple aviation issues including air traffic control reform for his firm Venable LLP.
Burnley and Dorgan proposed setting up a non-profit independent entity to handle operations, while the FAA retains safety oversight that is financially buoyed by airline customer fees. This proposal has received pushback out of concerns of endangering the progress made under the NextGen program.
Burnley pointed to "dozens of other countries" that have effectively implemented similar systems. While these countries handle far less traffic than the United States, Burnley said, "scale has nothing to do with whether you have to use" paper-based communications and outdated technology.
However, any such organizational shift would require legislation, which Burnley acknowledged is a challenge.
In Feb. 2016, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) introduced bill to spin off air traffic control operations from FAA, but it did not receive a full House vote. Burnley said he was unsure "whether it's politically possible to resurrect" Shuster's legislation, but added he thinks there are reasons for optimism this time around.
Even if Congress does pass legislation, there are still challenges.
For one, the establishment of an independent air traffic control entity could take about three years, which would create something of a contracting limbo for FAA, said Rui Neiva, a policy analyst for the Eno Center for Transportation.
"The contracts will exist regardless," he added. "They will just be transferred to the new entity" once it's ready to take them on.
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