GOP files bill to privatize air traffic control

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A Republican House member has filed a bill that would privatize some facets of the nation’s air traffic control as the Federal Aviation Administration struggles to meet deadlines to upgrade the system.

The measure would create a new private corporation that would oversee air traffic control functions that are currently handled by the FAA. 

 The legislation’s sponsor, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), said the measure would drastically improve the efficiency of air traffic control in the U.S. 

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“We’ve tried reform and reorganization, and we’ve created positions like the Chief Operating Officer within the Air Traffic Organization, but unfortunately our ATC technology and working conditions for air traffic controllers continue to fall further behind the rest of the world,” said Mica, who is a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee.  

“The U.S. economy loses tens-of-billions of dollars annually as the transition to a next generation air traffic control system falls further behind,” Mica continued. 

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 new flight management system has hit turbulence amid missed deadlines and rampant budget-cutting in Washington in recent years, and Republicans have argued private companies could better handle the technological demands of the air traffic control conversion.

Mica’s legislation would create a new private organization known as the Employee Stock Ownership Corporation that his office said would “allow stakeholders, including current air traffic controllers, airlines and users, to operate a new air traffic control system.” 

Mica said other countries have made similar transitions with their air traffic control systems in recent years. 

“This model, in one form or another, has worked successfully in countries around the world,” he said. “Now is the time to act boldly and bring our air traffic control operations into the 21st Century.”

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 2015, although lawmakers have already begun holding hearings about a possible extension. 

GOP leaders have argued several forms of nongovernmental options could better manage the transition, citing examples such as private nonprofit 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. 

"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," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in defense of the agency's progress at a separate House Transportation Committee hearing earlier this month. 

"With this foundation in place, we have fulfilled our end of the bargain," he continued. "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." 

FAA defenders have blamed the delays in implementing NextGen navigation systems on funding battles that have plagued the agency 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 during the March hearing. “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.” 

Mica said Thursday that his bill will streamline the air traffic control system and make the transition to satellite technology easier.  

“The legislation will create a new stock ownership entity that will be able to advance technology and improve working conditions,” he said. “The operation of the ATC system in the U.S. will be improved and made more efficient, which will benefit the airlines; and ATC technological innovations will be introduced, reducing both the cost of ATC services and airline delays.”