California officials urge federal lawmakers to approve AIRR Act and end flight delays

California businesses stand to be big losers if the nation’s ongoing and unnecessary flight delays continue, say state and local officials in a call for Congress to upgrade air traffic control operations when members fully reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

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In separately published commentaries this month, the officials said they would like to see California’s full delegation, as well as Congress, approve the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, H.R. 2997. The bipartisan legislation would spin off air traffic control (ATC) operations from the FAA and install a not-for-profit private entity to oversee them, among other provisions.

Specifically, the proposal — introduced June 22 by U.S. Republican Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania — would establish the American Air Navigation Services Corp. as the federally chartered ATC governing body, according to a summary of H.R. 2997, and would fund the FAA through fiscal year 2020 and specific FAA programs from FY2018 through FY2023.

Likewise, the bill would require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to transfer to the corporation all FAA employees and facilities by a set date and then relinquish operational control of FAA air traffic services on Oct. 1, 2020, according to the summary.

It’s a plan that’s “sorely needed to modernize our antiquated air traffic control system,” writes Allan Zaremberg, chief executive officer of the California Chamber of Commerce, in Monday’s Sacramento Bee.

California’s travelers, Zaremberg writes, are among some of the hardest hit by the outdated system’s resulting flight delays, particularly people arriving or departing from San Francisco International Airport, which he said has one of the highest percentages of “so-called national airspace system delays” that are caused by an overwhelmed system.

And “Los Angeles isn’t far behind,” he writes. “At LAX, nearly half of all delays could have been avoided by more efficient operations.”

In fact, DOT has reported that 65 percent of total delay minutes in San Francisco were due to a legacy aviation system being stretched beyond its means, according to George Runner, the Republican vice chair of the California State Board of Equalization, who represents the Fresno, Calif., area.

Subsequent flight delays are threatening the state’s economic competitiveness in several industries, including tourism and freight, which depend on reliable, timely air travel.

In a Nov. 8 opinion piece for The Fresno Bee, Runner wrote that such delays cost the United States economy roughly $25 billion a year, and “California gets hit especially hard by the FAA’s shortcomings,” he wrote.

“And we can only expect the strain and congestion to grow worse, with total air traffic expected to grow to one billion passengers annually in the next decade,” added Runner.

Those challenges will create even deeper financial problems for the state, which is set to host the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles., wrote Democrat Sylvia Ballin, mayor of the City of San Fernando, Calif., in a Nov. 4 op-ed published in the Los Angeles Daily News.

“I know we must do everything we can to prepare locally so that our businesses and residents can reap the benefits of having the Olympics right here in our backyard, without any added problems,” Ballin wrote.

But that’s not the only reason to modernize the nation’s ATC system, said Ballin, who pointed to the delay-relief sought by residents and businesses alike at not only LAX, but also at Burbank Airport, among others. “Seemingly no airport has been immune to repeated flight delays,” she wrote.

As community leaders, the three commenters agreed that the AIRR Act could fix the ATC issue.

For instance, Ballin said the bill calls for new investments in ATC technology, such as detection satellites that use text and data to increase operational efficiencies and communication between air traffic controllers.

“While the U.S. operates the safest ATC system in the world, it is far from the most efficient, relying on WWII-era technology,” she wrote.

And separating ATC operations from the FAA, Runner wrote, would establish a “user-funded nonprofit organization to more efficiently and cost-effectively modernize our [ATC] systems.”

Structured like a business, the nonprofit would have a CEO who was held accountable to a board of directors and “empowered to make decisions based on market realities instead of dysfunctional political interests,” added Zaremberg.

Additionally, with the FAA remaining the nation’s safety regulator under H.R. 2997, aviation experts and stakeholders would govern ATC operations and could “more credibly invest, develop and deploy upgrades to air traffic control technology,” Runner wrote.

The massive bureaucracy that is the FAA, Runner added, hasn’t changed much since it was created in 1958, “yet it is expected to operate like an agile tech-service provider.”

That’s not happening despite the FAA spending some $7 billion since 2009 to upgrade ATC services, according to the commenters.

These changes under the AIRR Act “will help our country make the investments necessary to correct course before further economic damage is done and potential is lost,” Zaremberg wrote.

U.S. House and Senate legislators have approved their chamber’s FAA reauthorization bills; they had a Sept. 30 deadline. But collectively, members of Congress needed additional time to debate the related issues, including ATC management, among others, and thus far has approved a six-month extension of FAA funding until March 31, 2018.