A nonpartisan think tank is calling for sweeping reforms to the nation’s air traffic control system, as lawmakers in Washington prepare to assemble legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
In a new report released Thursday, the Eno Center for Transportation advocates for separating air traffic control from the FAA and moving it to a government corporation or an independent nonprofit organization. The government would still administer grants and maintain safety oversight, under the proposal.
The report also proposes funding the system through user fees, instead of taxes and general funds.
“Only an entity outside the direct control of government will have the necessary independence to implement modern technologies at the pace needed to meet demand,” said Rui Neiva, the report’s co-author.
The report found that the government has struggled with modernization efforts, including establishing a precise satellite-based surveillance system and implementing digital data communications for air traffic controllers and pilots.
“Without significant changes, the American air traffic control system will not be able to cope with expected traffic growth, new complexities in the global air space, or critical upgrades,” said Robert Puentes, president and CEO of Eno Center.
The spin-off plan is favored by most major airlines and key lawmakers such as House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), but the issue has been divisive.
Critics, including some GOP tax writers and appropriators in Congress, worry about handing over the power to collect fees to a nonprofit organization.
Shuster said he plans to once again push air traffic control reform in this year’s FAA reauthorization bill and is hopeful there may be new momentum to do so under President Trump. The FAA’s current legal authority expires in September.
But Trump, who has long talked about the need to fix the country’s “third-world” airports, has not yet taken an official stance on the spin-off plan.
The issue came up at a recent White House meeting with major U.S. airlines, where Trump called the current air traffic control system “totally out of whack” and vowed to modernize the nation’s airports.
Shuster seized on the Eno report Thursday, saying it underscores the need for fundamental reforms to air traffic control.
“Today’s report echoes the findings of other studies that FAA reform will bring greater efficiency and stability to the aviation system, lower costs, and keep flying safe, while simultaneously letting the FAA focus on its most important missions — safety and certification of aircraft and aircraft equipment,” Shuster said.
“I commend the Eno Center for continuing to shed light on the need for fundamental FAA reform and highlighting the unsustainability of our current flawed aviation system.”
A source on the other side of the debate, however, points out the Eno’s Board Chairman James Burnley is a partner at Venable LLP, which was registered in 2016 to lobby on behalf of American Airlines - one of the air carrier’s pushing for ATC reform.