Symposium Reveals Support, Opposition to U.S. ATC Reform

 - July 8, 2015, 4:54 PM
Shown is the tower at Calgary International Airport. Nav Canada is considered a model for the U.S. ATC system. (Photo: Nav Canada)

Industry participants and interested parties gathered to discuss the future of the U.S. air traffic control system at a Transportation Research Board (TRB) event that revealed both support and ongoing opposition to the transformational change some members of Congress propose. That change, if it comes, will be advanced in the coming months in legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We believe that we have a real and rare opportunity with the current leadership in Congress and the administration to make a change that is going to benefit the system for everyone,” said Airlines for America (A4A) senior vice president Sharon Pinkerton, one of the panelists at the TRB symposium July 7 in Washington, D.C. A4A believes the FAA’s current Air Traffic Organization should be separated from its regulatory function, Pinkerton added, describing a model resembling an air navigation service provider, or ANSP. “We believe that organization should be adequately funded with an equitable and fair funding mechanism and we believe that there should be a governance board that is made up of stakeholders and users,” she said.

Speaking on a different panel, Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy with the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy institute, questioned the airline industry’s commitment to organizational reform and the associated need to upgrade the nation’s ATC infrastructure—the goal of the FAA’s NextGen program. “Modernization will not come cheap,” he said. “I have often heard proponents of privatization argue that the airline industry would be willing to bear the cost of modernization if they knew it would be well run by the ANSP. This claim, perhaps above all, requires some skepticism.”

DeGood observed that airlines collected $10.2 billion in ancillary revenues in 2013. Charging ancillary revenues as part of the base ticket fare, he said, would generate more than $800 million in ticket taxes for the airport and airway trust fund that supports the FAA. “I submit this is an industry that is not in a hurry to pay for the current system, let alone modernization,” he declared. “This leaves the prospect that the ANSP would face stiff resistance to levying the taxes or user fees necessary to realize NextGen modernization.”

Representatives of UK NATS, Germany’s DFS and Nav Canada described those organizations as, respectively, a public-private partnership, a government-owned LLC and a non-share capital corporation. Michael Korens, a former U.S. Senate aviation subcommittee counsel who Nav Canada described as its “general rep” in Washington, and who has also registered as a lobbyist for its Aireon satellite surveillance joint venture with Iridium Communications, spoke highly of the Canadian ANSP.

Spun-off from regulatory agency Transport Canada in 1996, Nav Canada is considered a model for the organization the U.S. might create. “Nineteen years into the exercise, this is a seriously stress-tested agency,” Korens said. “Safety is significantly better today. As measured by losses of separation they are half today what they were under Transport Canada. Fees today are 30 percent lower than they were under Transport Canada on a current-dollar basis. They’ve renewed virtually all of the air traffic control infrastructure and modernized it. They’ve taken the ATM (air traffic management) development in-house and have gone from depending on outside system integrators…to having a world class suite of products that they sell around the world.”

In a June 15 speech to the Aero Club of Washington, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he envisions creating a “federally chartered, fully independent, not-for-profit corporation” to operate and upgrade the ATC system. “We will establish a stable, self-sustaining, and fair user fee funding structure for ATC, removed from the budget process and the annual appropriations cycle, and free from the funding uncertainty,” he declared. Earlier this month, the committee informed aviation groups that it will likely defer releasing FAA reauthorization legislation to the full House until September, several weeks later than expected.