Pro-air traffic control privatization champions attempt opposition flyover

© Shutterstock

Congress must move past the status quo and approve a long-term bill that reforms the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), said Tuesday on the House floor.

And that bill is the one he sponsored: the 21st Century AIRR Act, H.R. 2997, which contains a bipartisan and controversial provision to spin off FAA’s oversight of the nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system into a private nonprofit entity that would leave the federal agency with safety oversight, among other duties.

Pressured by a looming Sept. 30 deadline, Congress last week passed a six-month extension bill to fund the FAA and avoid a shutdown—but Shuster, attempting to rally members to revamp an acceptable bill over the next six months that both chambers will pass, said the extension is not enough.

“Our work is not done. We have a responsibility to pass a long-term FAA bill that ensures America remains the world leader in aviation, promotes American manufacturing jobs, and improves air service for every American,” the congressman said.

Shuster’s bill, in fact, was the launch pad for what was U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to shift the responsibilities of the ATC system away from the FAA to a private, nonprofit entity overseen by the airlines and other aviation stakeholders. This “air travel revolution” will modernize the outdated ATC system, the president said in June when he announced the so-called privatization plan as part of his overall $1 trillion nationwide infrastructure plan.

The politics of the issue have resulted in some strange bedfellows: on one side, Trump, Republican leadership, most major airlines and the most affected labor union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. On the other: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and several Republicans including U.S. Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK).

Among the benefits of the ATC privatization plan, as it’s widely known, are that it would move an estimated 30,000 FAA employees off the federal payroll and into the proposed ATC corporation. Of that group, NATCA represents 14,058 air traffic controllers. NATCA’s Communications Director Doug Church said 10,598 of those professionals are fully certified, with the rest in training to become fully certified.

Removing the FAA from running the business of air traffic control, which it also currently regulates, would correct a conflict of interest, spin-off advocates argue.

And supporters cite other benefits, as well.

Airlines for America (A4A), for instance, the main trade group representing U.S. airlines, said the nation’s antiquated ATC system lacks sufficient technology enabling it to transfer air traffic between facilities during disruptions, like natural disasters or a dangerous event (hazardous spill, fire, etc.) that happens near an air control tower. And that’s despite the federal government spending $7.4 billion to improve it over the last decade, said Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of A4A.

Such disruptions, Calio said, underscore “the dilapidated facilities, short staffing and lack of contingency planning that make the case for air traffic control modernization legislation that is being considered on Capitol Hill.

“Opponents of modernization should get their heads out of the sand,” Calio added.

Additionally, both the FAA and ATC services, staffing, hiring and training, long-term modernization projects and maintenance, as well as ongoing infrastructure upgrades need a stable, predictable funding stream, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), and that’s what the long-term bill would provide.

While Congress last week did avoid an FAA shutdown that could have furloughed thousands of employees and suspended services, the FAA’s preparation for a possible shutdown depleted critical resources, noted NATCA’s Church.

“This is especially unacceptable because it comes at a time when FAA employees have worked tirelessly to restore aviation services in areas that have been devastated by recent hurricanes in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Church said in a statement.

At the same time, this lack of a predictable funding stream likely has contributed to today’s 28-year low of fully certified professional controllers (CPCs), an ongoing concern at the FAA, which reports it is 2,300 CPCs short of its overall 12,896 CPC goal.

Experts at the Eno Center for Transportation (ECT), Robert Puentes, president and CEO, and Rui Neiva, policy analyst at the non-partisan think tank, also point out that Shuster’s bill technically isn’t about privatizing the ATC system.

The current proposal, they write in a Sept. 28 op-ed, would create a nonprofit user cooperative utility, similar to those that distribute water and electricity to millions of Americans.

“In the case of aviation, such an arrangement would ensure that different groups have a voice in governing the system, including labor,” the ECT writers say, harkening the proposed bill’s 13-member board.

Shuster on Tuesday also reminded general aviation (GA) opponents of H.R. 2997 about that exact fact.

“GA wanted parity on the board. They got it with the ability to nominate two board members, on page 64,” Shuster said. “The balanced board will include airports, pilots, controllers, commercial passenger carriers, cargo carriers, regional carriers, General Aviation, and Business Aviation. Plus two seats nominated by the federal government. A super majority of those will choose two independent seats. The board will then choose a CEO.

“Yet even when faced with these facts in black and white text,” Shuster added, “opponents of reform still claim these guarantees aren’t in the bill.”

The cons
Specifically, critics of the ATC spin-off plan say they oppose handing over control of the country’s ATC system to a 13-member private board unaccountable to Congress. Instead, NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen said he supports modernization and targeted reforms that would ensure the nation’s air transportation system remains a global leader.

“As a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded, our air traffic modernization program is on schedule,” NBAA and other aviation groups recently wrote in a letter to transportation committee leaders in Congress advocating to strip the ATC proposal from the FAA reauthorization bill.

“We support this modernization effort and oppose handing over control of our nation’s air traffic system to special interests with no Congressional oversight,” according to the letter.

The GAO report released in August noted that the FAA is implementing its Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, air traffic modernization system incrementally and has taken actions to address challenges to implementation. In addition, GAO said FAA’s recent cost estimates for implementing NextGen are within range of cost estimates from about 10 years ago.

“NextGen is thoughtfully and appropriately transitioning from ground-based navigation systems to satellite-based systems and from analog communications to digital communications systems,” Bolen said in an interview with Transportation Today.

In Congress, Russell has spearheaded an FAA contingency of House Republicans who are fighting to keep ATC part of the FAA.

Interestingly, the FAA Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center is in Russell’s Oklahoma district where thousands of air traffic controllers, trainees and others are employed. Many also are members of the NATCA, which supports H.R. 2997.

However, Russell told Transportation Today that his ATC privatization views “absolutely are not in conflict” with most air traffic controllers in his district.

Russell admits there are FAA members in Oklahoma who belong to NATCA and who do support the proposal, but that’s because “there’s language in the bill that says the largest union representing air traffic controllers will have a seat on the board of this proposed private corporation and NATCA would qualify as that union,” he said. “So you can see what’s going on here.”

Russell added that if a private corporation took over and started to unravel the training or centralized operations under way at the Moroney Aeronautical Center campus, such actions could break up FAA efficiencies, resulting in a national security problem.

And peeling off aspects of FAA components at the center would create duplicative efforts and end cross-agency info sharing since many agencies, such as Border Protection Services, utilize FAA data, personnel and other information and services in an administrative capacity, Russell explained.

The proposed privatized ATC entity under H.R. 2997 would create a monopoly that regulated both fee and revenue collections, said Russell, which would be unconstitutional.

“Establishing a private ATC board outside the purview of Congress with the unilateral power to collect fees and distribute service also could threaten freedom and accessibility for Americans to fly their own planes, affordability of flights and the ability of our country to generate pilots,” he said.

Nevertheless, Russell, who planned to vote against the short-term FAA extension bill, wound up supporting the proposal “because it was tied to hurricane relief,” he explained. “But I certainly did not support a short-term extension. I thought we should do a full FAA reauthorization and appropriation and get it done.”

And Russell said he remains fully committed to quashing any forthcoming long-term bill that contains ATC privatization; the Senate also isn’t likely to support a proposal with that language in it, either.

However, Shuster said Tuesday that the upcoming reworked bill “clearly separates air traffic control service from the government,” but the federal government—Congress, the Department of Transportation and the FAA—will have oversight of ATC, “just like every other aspect of our aviation system, including airlines and manufacturers,” he said.

“The new corporation will only provide a service — it will not regulate anything, and it cannot issue rules because it’s a private entity,” Shuster said. “I encourage members to read the bill and come to us with any questions.”