GOP continues push to privatize air traffic control

Photo credit: Valerii Iavtushenko / Shutterstock.com 

Decades-old technology, delayed progress on modernization efforts and continued reliance on the passing of paper strips to communicate between air traffic controllers have led to a renewed push to outsource air traffic operations.

President Donald Trump's budget proposal has brought new urgency to those calls.

"The FAA is the only agency worse at procurement than the Pentagon," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa) at a recent hearing, adding the FAA's air traffic control structure has been "broken for decades."

Schuster blamed the bureaucracy of the Federal Aviation Administration for the swelling expenses and delayed progress on the massive NextGen modernization project. He's hoping to shift operational control out of government, and away from reliance on annual appropriations.

Nongovernmental systems are currently deployed in Canada and dozens of other countries worldwide.

Paul Rinaldi, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said that all projects on which NATCA has partnered with the FAA "have been impacted by uncertainty of funding."

He added that NATCA is currently working with Leidos to develop a 100 percent electronic communications system, and supported Shuster's 2016 bill to privatize air traffic control operations.

However, opponents to spinning off air traffic control operations argue that the U.S.'s air travel system can't be compared to other countries' because the U.S. is 10 times larger than the second largest.

"We are now on the cusp of a 21st Century system that will be the envy of the world," said Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), adding that a shift will result in "a period of disruption" not worth any possible safety risk. He added that U.S. air traffic control expects to be "totally satellite-based by 2020," with exceptions made for older commercial planes that lack modern GPS systems.

Calvin Scovel, inspector general for the Department of Transportation, doesn't agree that the current air traffic system is broken, but acknowledged that "many risks remain."

FAA's most recent estimate for the end state of NextGen is a 2030 completion date at a cost of $36 billion split between industry and government. However, Scovel added, "we don't know what the total cost might be, nor do we know what the completion date will be."

Hartzell Propeller President Joseph Brown said that NextGen "works for me every day," adding that "from a tech standpoint, I believe we're on the right track." Brown, who is also a private pilot, also raised concerns that a nongovernmental board, even a nonprofit one, would favor the airline companies at the expense of smaller stakeholders.

Rinaldi said he would be open to other suggestions and that there is "no one solution" to modernization, but made clear that the "broken status quo… is unacceptable."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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