In early March, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee convened its third hearing focusing on airports and airline concerns, gearing up for the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. The FAA is currently operating under a bill that expires in September, and considering how much hand-wringing it took to get the last authorization in place and the current governmental turnover, reauthorization talk will surely dominate the year to come.
At the heart of a debate is a proposal to disentangle air traffic control duties from the FAA for the good of America’s air infrastructure. This idea was floated as a separate bill last year, and while the proposal ultimately went nowhere, support hasn’t waned.
The Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan organization, recently found that the domestic air traffic control system is in desperate need of reform and argued the United States should look to other countries for examples of how to set up its air traffic control system.
“While in the United States, the [air traffic control] system is operated by the federal government and funded through direct and indirect taxation, many other developed countries have already departed from this model,” the report found. “None of these countries rely on taxation for their operations; instead, fees charged to airspace users fund them.”
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the infrastructure committee, said the reforms outlined in the report would “bring greater efficiency and stability to the aviation system, lower costs, and keep flying safe, while simultaneously letting the FAA focus on its most important missions - safety and certification of aircraft and aircraft equipment.”
Reauthorization is already on the minds of industry groups abroad as well. Bringing technology up to date and tweaking air traffic control patterns has been on the FAA’s docket for years, and Alexandre de Juniac, the director general of the International Air Transport Association, said at the recent Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit IATA “supports the creation of an independent, corporatized non-profit entity to manage U.S. skies.”
“The U.S. is falling behind in the introduction of new and more efficient technology. Now is the time to move forward with innovation in the provision of air traffic services,” he said.
During the conference, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the innovation de Juniac was talking about is an ongoing process. Huerta noted the NextGen program has already “delivered more than $2.72 billion in benefits,” a number that he predicts will increase to $13 billion over the next three years.
Huerta said going forward the FAA will need steady funding, access to infrastructure financing and fewer restrictions on how to spend that money. But proponents of a split argue that to ensure the safety of the nation’s air traffic infrastructure, control of those duties needs to be passed to an outside firm that isn’t subject to the same budgetary concerns.
Of course, the issue of airline modernization is far from straightforward.
On the last day of February, a group of four senators, including Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote a letter to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to express concerns over slicing up the FAA. The letter contends that removing air traffic control duties would undermine the solid work the FAA has accomplished through the NextGen program, and remove the administration’s built in checks and balances.
“The public would not be well-served by exempting any part of the FAA from annual Congressional oversight,” the senators wrote. “A privatized system would provide consumers with no recourse for complaints or mistreatment.”
As for the budget argument, the senators claim that stable funding is available for the FAA, and that the administration’s air traffic arm routinely gets 99 percent of financing it requests from Congress.
Groups like the National Business Aviation Administration have stood up in agreement.
The letter “provides an important reminder about the need for Congressional oversight of aviation-system decision making,” said Ed Bolen, the group’s president and CEO. “America’s system of airports and airspace serves the public interest, including the people, business and communities that rely on general aviation. Congressional oversight ensures that the entire public has access to aviation.”
In a separate letter to newly confirmed Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked her to keep an open mind in any discussions involving the future of domestic air traffic control and the nation’s air infrastructure. The senators pointed to a Government Accountability Office report that found restructuring the FAA would take at least seven years. Such a lengthy process, Moran and Klobuchar noted, could severely disrupt modernization programs elsewhere in the agency. They also reminded Chao of the testimony she gave at her confirmation hearing, where she pledged to address air traffic changes only after a national discussion to reach a consensus.
Whatever happens with the FAA, solving the myriad issues surrounding air traffic control modernization and the nation’s air infrastructure will require input from across the industry. With a new presidential administration still in its infancy in terms of infrastructure policy, all parties involved should take a measured, thoughtful approach before any decisions are made involving the FAA.
Jon Ross, a former American Shipper editor, writes about air transport and freight issues. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.