Union signals openness to GOP air traffic control privatization plans

Union signals openness to GOP air traffic control privatization plans
© Getty Images

The union that represents U.S. air traffic controllers signaled Monday that it could consider Republican plans to privatize some facets of the nation’s air traffic control, but only after lawmakers approve a new round of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. 

The FAA's funding is set to expire in September, and Republicans in Congress are pushing to privatize at least some air traffic control functions that are currently performed by the agency as it considers a potential extension of the aviation spending. 

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said Monday that Congress should focus first on extending the FAA's funding, but he said he would be willing to talk about efforts to reform the agency after the aviation money is firmly put in place. 

"We understand that addressing the funding makes a lot of people look toward the structure of the FAA. But we must agree that finding a secure, stable funding system is the first thing that needs to be agreed to," Rinaldi said in a speech to the Aero Club of Washington. 

ADVERTISEMENT

"Any structural changes that we want to examine has to be carefully examined and cannot be done with any haste or exuberance that will lead to unintended consequences," he continued. "Safety has to always be our priority. None of us can afford to get this wrong." 

The comments came a week after Rep. John MicaJohn Luigi MicaRep. Stephanie Murphy says she's 'seriously considering' 2022 challenge to Rubio Media barred from bringing bulletproof vests, gas masks and helmets to inauguration On The Trail: The political losers of 2020 MORE (R-Fla.) introduced legislation in the House that calls for the creation of a new private corporation that would oversee air traffic control functions that are currently handled by the FAA. The new private organization would be known as the Employee Stock Ownership Corporation and would "allow stakeholders, including current air traffic controllers, airlines and users, to operate a new air traffic control system,” according to Mica.  

Mica and other supporters of privatizing at least some of the FAA's air traffic control functions have often cited the creation of a similar system in Canada that is known as NavCanada.

The Canada air traffic control entity is a "private sector, non-share capital corporation financed through publicly-traded debt" that was established in 1996, according to its website. 

Rinaldi said Wednesday that he is not sure the Canadian system would work as well in the U.S.  

"No system is like the United States airspace system," he said. "No model in use elsewhere is perfect, much less suitable for a system this large or complicated and diverse as ours." 

Rinaldi pointed out the U.S. has much busier airports than Canada.  

"Everybody throws the NavCanada model up at me all the time, and that is a very intriguing and interesting model that works very well in Canada," he said. "Out of the top 30 airports in the world, Canada has one, number 15, Toronto. This country has eight out of the top 10 and 16 out of the top 30. It's easy for them to modernize when they have one major airport they need to worry about." 

Supporters of the GOP privatization plan have pointed to delays in the FAA's implementation of a new satellite-based flight navigation system that is known as NextGen as a reason to consider switching to at least the partial privatization model. 

"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, a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee, when his measure was released last week. 

“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. 

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

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, and switch 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.

Rinaldi said Monday that he is not as sure as critics are that the comparison between the U.S. and Canadian aviation systems is apt. 

"I don't know if its scalable, I'll be completely honest with you," he told the Aero Club audience. "I'm willing to roll up my sleeves and look at it and see if it is scalable. I'm willing to have those conversations and move forward with them, as long as we find a stable, predictable funding stream."  

-This post was updated at 10:46 p.m.