After U.S. Election, Battle Resumes Over ATC Restructuring

 - November 16, 2016, 11:57 AM
House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster is shown in February during ATC reform bill unveiling. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives used reports from different federal offices to argue their cases for and against restructuring the Federal Aviation Administration to create an independent ATC organization. The parties issued dueling press releases on November 15, reviving the debate over ATC reform within days of Republican Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the Presidential election.

House Republicans described an audit report the Department of Transportation office of inspector general issued as “yet another scathing report” revealing uncertainty in the FAA’s ability to accomplish the NextGen ATC modernization effort. The FAA plans to spend $5.7 billion on six NextGen component programs through 2020, but “many benefits remain unquantified, broad or uncertain for improving the flow of air traffic and reducing agency operating costs…As we have noted in previous reports, airspace users continue to express reluctance to invest and equip with NextGen technology due to skepticism in FAA’s ability to achieve its plans and clearly define and deliver benefits,” the IG said.

In a press release, the Republican-led House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee seized on the IG’s findings to argue the case for ATC restructuring. “The inspector general’s latest report on FAA’s costly, ineffective NextGen implementation efforts again underscores the need for comprehensive reform of how our nation’s air traffic control system is managed,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the committee chairman.

“The IG’s findings confirm my long-held belief, and the belief of many experts, that the FAA’s bureaucracy is simply unable to manage large, multi-year, technologically complex capital projects, particularly when tied to an annual funding cycle,” Shuster added. “ATC reform will address this flawed construct and allow NextGen to be managed in a sound, businesslike manner that ensures the efficiency and continued safety of our system.”

In July, the Congress passed short-term legislation to extend FAA funding through next September; edited from the reauthorization bill was any language to separate the agency’s ATC function into a separate organization—the option Shuster has championed. The November 9 victory of Trump, who has promised major spending on the nation’s transportation infrastructure, has revived the prospects for ATC restructuring. When negotiations over long-term FAA reauthorization legislation resume in the new year, Republicans will control the House, the Senate and the presidency.

“We have a unique opportunity to begin this work immediately by embracing innovative ideas and approaches to improving our infrastructure,” Shuster said in a post-election statement. “In the coming months, for example, Congress must pass an FAA reauthorization bill that modernizes our aging air traffic control system and significantly improves the efficiency of our aviation system.”

The airline trade group Airlines for America (A4A) also raised ATC restructuring in a statement congratulating Trump after the election. “Our ability to create more jobs and help fuel economic growth is possible only if we’re operating within a national airspace infrastructure that is designed for the future,” said Nicholas Calio, A4A president and CEO. “Our vision for a modernized National Airspace System includes reforming the ATC system so that politics don’t impede hiring and training more air traffic controllers and equipping our facilities with technology used by more than 50 countries around the world. We want to see a reliable ATC funding model—funded by the system users, not political gamesmanship—so that we can plan for the long-term capital improvements the system needs to grow.”

Ranking Democrats on the transportation committee countered with Government Accountability Office (GAO) survey of aviation industry experts and “stakeholders” that identified organizational, funding and transition issues that would need to be resolved before separating the FAA from its ATC function. The GAO has determined that a “large transformation” of the ATC system could take five to seven years to complete. Meanwhile, Democrats complain that Schuster’s committee held just one hearing on ATC restructuring, then approved the plan over bipartisan opposition less than 24 hours later.

“The results of last week’s election may have given proponents of air traffic control privatization hope that their proposal will have more success in the next Congress, but those same proponents have failed to answer the many serious questions regarding their plan,” Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore) and aviation subcommittee ranking member Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said in a joint statement. “Any proposal to overhaul the existing ATC system must be thoroughly vetted, not rushed through Congress just because the political landscape makes it easier.”

DeFazio called on the transportation committee to schedule a series of hearings to address concerns raised by opponents of ATC restructuring, aviation stakeholder groups and the GAO. “There is no consensus on this plan, and we cannot take that lightly,” he added.