Air Traffic Controllers union to Peter Orszag: Butt out of NextGen fight

The union for air traffic controllers reacted strongly Friday to a suggestion from former White House economic adviser Peter Orszag that the proposed advanced navigation system for the national aviation system could be privatized.

Orszag, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget until his resignation from the White House in 2010, said in an op-ed in this week that the private sector might be able to help get the proposed NextGen navigation up and running faster than the federal government with Republicans in control of the House.

But the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said Friday that the system would be in place faster if Congress passed a long-term authorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Americans put their trust in our highly skilled, professional and experienced federal air traffic controllers to get them where they need to go, safely and soundly," NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement. "And they should have confidence when they do: our nation’s air traffic controllers have a near-perfect safety record.

"So when former Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag opined … that our air traffic control system should be privatized, we must respond," he continued. "Orszag, and others who share his view, are advocating a dangerous and misguided solution for improving what is already the world’s safest and most efficient system."

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In his opinion piece, which appeared Thursday in Bloomberg News, Orszag was not critical of the FAA's performance — rather, he said, the problem was the political climate in Washington, which makes increasing federal spending difficult.

"President Barack Obama has proposed stepping up government investment in NextGen, a GPS-based air-traffic-control technology that will allow planes to fly closer to one another than they can with human and radar help alone and to follow more direct flight paths," Orszag said in the article. "The system is expected to reduce delays by more than a third, saving billions of dollars for airline companies and for the traveling public.

"Unfortunately, though, the NextGen system is being rolled out in stages, and it isn’t expected to be fully operational in U.S. airports and aircraft until 2020," he continued. "Even that slow timetable assumes that the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency overseeing the project, receives the necessary funding from Congress and can meet all its deadlines."

Rinaldi was hardly convinced, saying: "At best, privatization would devastate a core component of our economy — aviation contributes nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars to our GDP.

"At worst, privatization would put our impeccable safety record at risk," he said Friday.

Plans called for the NextGen system to be installed by 2014 at the busiest airports, and nationwide by 2020. The new system, which would switch the air traffic control system from World War II-era radar technology to a satellite-based system, would cost the FAA about $22 billion through 2025. 

Airlines would spend about an additional $20 billion to upgrade their airplanes' computer systems.

Lawmakers have generally been receptive to the idea, until talk turns to how to pay for it. In the series of continuing resolutions approved this spring as Congress worked to avert a government shutdown, they cut about $200 million from the FAA's budget that would have gone to the conversion.