U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the government is open to ideas on privatizing the nation’s ATC system, as long as aviation industry “stakeholders” agree on making that transformation. Foxx remarked on privatization after delivering the keynote speech at an Aero Club of Washington luncheon on February 25, his first major address to an aviation audience.
The Federal Aviation Administration provides ATC services in the U.S., relying on aviation user taxes and congressional appropriations to fund its operations. Increasingly in recent years, critics have called for restructuring the agency and spinning off its ATC responsibilities to an independent entity, comparable to Nav Canada or UK NATS, that would charge for its services and not rely on government subsidies. In December, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called for “bold ideas” to improve the U.S. aviation system. He suggested that the FAA may not be able to accomplish the ambitious NextGen ATC modernization in its present form.
Asked to share his view on privatization, Foxx said: “I’ve heard from a variety of stakeholders and so I know there’s a lot of frustration that the political underpinning for our aviation system may be frayed and folks are looking for some alternatives. My feeling is that we should engage with all of the stakeholders and keep our ears and minds open to new and different ways of doing things. But we’re also going to want the stakeholder community to be as united as possible on what the outcome is, so that means labor, it means the carriers…it means manufacturers. Everybody is going to have to engage on the questions because there’s a graveyard of administrations that have tried to make game-changing moves here.”
The former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, became Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary last July, succeeding Ray LaHood. While he has moved forcibly to regulate and possibly ban the use of cellphones on airliners in the U.S., aviation industry insiders have questioned his commitment to the industry during his short tenure. A speech that Foxx gave to the Transportation Research Board chairman’s luncheon in January was “disappointing,” according to the JDA Journal blog, published by aviation consulting firm JDA Aviation Technology Solutions of Bethesda, Maryland. “This seminal speech of the Secretary before TRB sends a subtle, but clear message that aviation is not on his radar screen,” the blog states.
During his speech to the Aero Club, Foxx attested that he is committed to aviation. “Over the last several weeks, you’ve heard me talking a lot about the Highway Trust Fund, which is on track to bounce checks as soon as August,” he said. “You’ve probably read in the paper that the DOT is focused on a surface transportation bill, and we are. But that doesn’t mean that we have forgotten about funding for aviation; in fact, quite the contrary…We’re still facing an infrastructure deficit in this country, and it’s particularly true when it comes to aviation. The FAA is still operating at historically low funding levels.”
Foxx added that “there is no project in aviation with the potential to improve efficiency more than NextGen, and many airlines are already starting to see the benefits.” He described the FAA’s program to revise wake turbulence separation standards at Memphis International Airport, which has helped cargo carrier FedEx Express save $1.8 million a month on fuel. The FAA is making similar improvements at other major airports, resulting in cost and time savings. “But I’m not here to ‘spike the football’ on NextGen,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. We have to continue working to develop tangible outcomes that we can measure in the short term, the medium term and the long term.”