FAA bill ensures safe, efficient air travel

America’s aviation system is safe, but it is not efficient, cost-effective or technologically advanced. The good news is Congress has an opportunity to ensure our aviation system can embody all of these qualities for the foreseeable future.

Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on aviation, and I have introduced legislation that will provide transformational reform of the U.S. aviation system to make it both safe and efficient, modernize our antiquated air traffic control technology and position America to lead the world in aviation. After holding a hearing on the legislation Wednesday, the committee is marking up the bill today.

ADVERTISEMENT
A central reform of the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act moves the responsibility of modernizing and operating air traffic control out of the federal bureaucracy and establishes an independent, not-for-profit corporation to provide that service.

Under this structure, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) isn’t going anywhere. The aviation regulatory agency remains responsible for safety and rules for operating the aviation system.

There are clear reasons why this reform is necessary and what the benefits will be.

According to the FAA, delays and inefficiency cost our economy more than $30 billion a year. Delays at two-thirds of the largest U.S. airports are up, and when there’s a problem at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport or the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, you can be certain the effects are felt throughout the system. By the end of the next decade, the FAA expects the number of passengers annually crisscrossing American skies to grow to 1 billion. 

We’re bound for more delays and their associated costs unless we can modernize the system. The FAA has been trying to do this for over three decades; its only success has been demonstrating it isn’t up to task.

Government watchdog reports about cost overruns and delays in the FAA’s air traffic control modernization efforts would fill a bookcase. In 2014, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general provided sobering testimony about the latest FAA modernization program, called NextGen, on which the agency has spent approximately $6 billion thus far. The inspector general stated, “We are probably also looking at total expenditures in an order of magnitude two to three times that of the initial $40 billion estimate to achieve the original plan.” The watchdog also stated that, with all the setbacks, we may not see NextGen until at least 2035. Clearly, there’s a long way to go.

The basic problem is this: The FAA is an enormous bureaucracy struggling to provide a high-tech communications service  — a modern air traffic control system. In years past, Congress tried to loosen the FAA’s bureaucratic reins with procurement and personnel reforms to help the agency act with more agility. The FAA’s efforts to implement them have failed.

More piecemeal reforms would simply be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s time for the bold action necessary to finally modernize our air traffic control system. 

Under the AIRR Act, air traffic services will transition to an independent air traffic control corporation over three years. America’s skilled air traffic controllers, who already do an excellent job despite being forced to work with outdated technology, will also transfer.

The corporation will be governed by a board representing the system’s various users and the public interest, and it will be self-financed. This is not a government corporation or quasi-government entity dependent on taxpayers and federal appropriations. The federal government will not back the corporation’s financial obligations.

The corporation will focus exclusively on providing modern, technologically advanced air traffic service. The legislation does not give the airspace to the corporation; that remains in the public trust. The FAA will focus exclusively on what it does best: regulating the airspace, aircraft and aviation equipment for safety.

This new structure inoculates air traffic control from the volatile budget process and counterproductive political decision making that has contributed to the FAA’s inability to improve the system. In addition, the corporation will have access to private markets to finance modernization and long-term capital projects — something the FAA cannot do.

Proposals from previous presidents to separate air traffic services from the FAA were never enacted, but since that time, an independent air traffic control provider has become the global standard. More than 50 countries have adopted some form of this model. Numerous studies that have examined other countries’ efforts have found that air traffic control systems have been modernized, service quality has improved and costs have been reduced. Most importantly, they’ve found that safety levels have been either maintained or improved.

Newfound operational efficiencies, a modernized air traffic control system, a bureaucracy no longer wasting billions of dollars: All of this adds up to benefits for the consumer and the system’s users.

Americans will see more effective use of their airspace, increased capacity in the aviation system, more direct routes, shorter flight times, reduced delays and cancellations, and reductions in aircraft pollution and noise.

It’s no more complicated than that. A cutting edge, more efficient air traffic control system will ensure taxpayers stop throwing money away and passengers spend far less time staring in frustration at the arrivals and departures board wondering why their flights are delayed.

America can have the safest aviation system in the world, as well as the most efficient, cost-effective and advanced system. We don’t have that today, but under the AIRR Act, we can.

Shuster has represented Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District since 2001. He is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and sits on the Armed Services Committee.

More in Transportation

Report on TSA security risks pressures House to act on FAA bill

Read more »