GOP pushes to privatize air traffic control

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Republicans on the House Transportation Committee are pushing to privatize some facets of the nation’s air traffic control as the Federal Aviation Administration struggles to meet deadlines to upgrade the system.

The FAA has been planning for years to discard the World War II-era radar technology that has been used to manage airplane traffic for generations, switching to its NextGen system. But the conversion has hit turbulence amid missed deadlines and rampant budget-cutting in Washington in recent years.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said private companies could better handle the technological demands of the air traffic control conversion.

“The underlying problem is that air traffic control is a high-tech service,” he said during a hearing on Tuesday. 

“The customers are companies and individuals who pay good money to a service provider that is not a business, but a vast government bureaucracy,” Shuster continued. “As a government agency, the FAA is simply not set up to determine risks, pursue the most cost-efficient investments, manage people to produce results, reward excellence, or punish incompetence like a normal business.  

"In the same amount of time FAA has been working on NextGen, Verizon has upgraded its wireless network four times,” he added.

The FAA has said the NextGen system will ease congestion in the airspace around busy U.S. airports by streamlining the arrivals and departures of flights. It also argues that navigating flights more efficiently will have environmental benefits because airplanes will use less gas and produce less smog.

The catch is that the NextGen system is expected to cost about $40 billion to complete, and an original 2020 deadline for implementing it nationwide is rapidly approaching. Complicating matters further, the FAA’s current funding is scheduled to expire in September, although lawmakers have already begun holding hearings about a possible extension later this year. 

GOP leaders have argued several forms of non-governmental could better manage the transition, citing examples such as private non-profit and public-private partnerships. 

The FAA has meanwhile adopted a piecemeal approach to NextGen as it waits for answers from Congress about its future funding. 

"The FAA has delivered on its commitment to build the foundation that will support the many applications of NextGen," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in defense of the agency's progress at a separate House Transportation Committee hearing earlier this month.

"In 2014, we completed the coast-to-coast installation of a network of radio transceivers that will enable a satellite-based air traffic control system that provides a more precise and efficient alternative to radar," Huerta continued then. "With this foundation in place, we have fulfilled our end of the bargain. We are working with the airline industry and the general aviation community to help them do their part to meet their requirement to equip by the 2020 deadline." 

Shuster said Tuesday that the FAA has been unable to make marked improvements to the airplane navigation system with previous appropriations measures, despite the incremental advances that have been made in recent years. 

“After three decades of various modernization attempts and billions of taxpayer dollars spent, we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” he said.

“While the FAA has spent approximately $6 billion to date on NextGen, passengers, shippers, and aircraft operators have seen few benefits," Shuster continued. "In fact, ATC delays are up at 13 of our 20 largest airports, and domestic flights take longer now than they did in 1977. Delays ripple throughout the system and cost tens of billions of dollars every year.” 

The president of the union for air traffic controllers blamed the delays in implementing NextGen navigation systems on funding battles that have plagued the FAA in Washington.

“For years, the FAA has been faced with unstable, unpredictable funding where interruptions in the funding stream have negatively affected all aspects of the FAA,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi told the panel. “The agency has had to spread its resources thinly between fully staffing a 24/7 operation, as well as the modernization and daily maintenance required to sustain an aging infrastructure.” 

Rinaldi said budget cuts that were included in the 2011 sequestration law that took effect in 2013 made the FAA’s funding situation worse.  

“The FAA was forced to furlough its employees, including air traffic controllers, consider closing federal and contract towers curtailing air traffic services at smaller markets, place preventative measures on hold and cut other services,” he said. “The cuts also prevented the FAA from hiring new trainees to replace those certified controllers who retire, thus adding stress to an already understaffed workforce.” 

Shuster said his preference for privatizing some facets of air traffic control “is not an indictment of the FAA’s leadership team, or our air traffic controllers, who are the best in the world.  

“It’s an indictment of a governance and financing structure that is broken beyond repair,” he said. 

Shuster added that other countries have successfully transitioned to private air traffic controllers with little interruption to the movement of flights. 

“It’s been done before. In the past 20 years, 50 countries have successfully separated their ATC service from the aviation safety regulator,” he said. “They’ve taken different approaches, but with similar results: ATC systems have been modernized, safety levels have been either maintained or improved, service quality has been improved in most cases, and costs have been generally reduced.” 

Shuster said the consequences of maintaining the status quo in air traffic control would be increased flight gridlock. 

“As our system approaches one billion passengers per year, under these circumstances, two things will happen,” he said. “One: every day at the airport is going to seem like the day before Thanksgiving. And two: we will lose our lead in aviation as other nations catch up and surpass us.  

"Neither outcome is acceptable,” said Shuster. 

-This story was last updated with new information at on March 25 at 3:27 p.m.