Former senators back independent air traffic control plan

A bipartisan pair of former senators who are now lobbying for U.S. airlines is backing a House Republican proposal to separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Former Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said in a letter to leaders of the House and Senate the proposal would drastically improve the nation’s aviation system, which they said has fallen behind other countries in recent years amid problems at the FAA. 

“There was a time when the United States was the gold standard in every aspect of air traffic control. Those days of global leadership, regrettably, are gone,” the lawmakers wrote. 

{mosads}”The U.S. no longer has the most modern equipment, the most efficient airplane routings or the best technology of any of the world’s air traffic control providers,” the former lawmakers continued. “Further, the accumulated effects of budget unpredictability and a bureaucratic organizational structure have slowed progress on implementing next generation technologies and inhibited our ability to properly staff facilities and procure the best equipment for our nation’s air traffic controllers.” 

Republicans in the House are pushing to create a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the FAA in an upcoming funding measure. 

Lawmakers are debating the air traffic control privatization proposal as Congress tries to beat a March 31 deadline for renewing the agency’s funding.

GOP leaders in the House have said the proposed nongovernmental entity could better manage commercial and private jet flights in the nation’s airspace. 

“After examining various models, I believe we need to establish a federally chartered, fully independent not-for-profit corporation to operate and modernize our [air traffic control] services,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said during a speech last June at the Aero Club of Washington. 

Critics, however, have said the proposal would amount to a privatization of the nation’s air traffic control system. 

“Keeping our air travel safe and efficient is not a partisan issue. The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee understand this, and our coalition is grateful that Chairman Cochran and the other leaders have said clearly that removing air traffic control from the FAA is not in the best interest of the American people,” the newly formed Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization group said in a statement. 

“We hope that Chairman Shuster and Chairman Thune will listen to their colleagues and move forward with an FAA reauthorization proposal that keeps this vital public good out of the hands of a private organization beholden to corporate interests,” said the group, which was formed last week.  

The push to remove most facets of air traffic control from the FAA’s purview comes amid a years-long effort by the agency to discard the World War II-era radar technology currently used to manage airplane traffic in favor of a new satellite-based system, known as NextGen.

The conversion has hit turbulence amid missed deadlines and rampant budget cutting in Washington, and supporters of the privatization proposal have said the FAA is ill-equipped to complete the project.

Most major airlines support the plan to create a new air traffic control organization that would be separate the FAA. Dorgan and Lott said the plan to separate air traffic control from the FAA would prevent problems with the agency’s funding from impacting commercial and private jet flights. 

“All stakeholders including commercial, business and general aviation operators, passengers and labor have been negatively impacted by the stops and starts of the federal budget process,” the former lawmakers wrote. 

“Our nation’s air traffic control system should not be treated like a political football and subjected to the vagaries of the annual budgeting process,” they continued. “In addition, the ATC service provider should be regulated at arms-length by the FAA, just as air carriers, aircraft and engine manufacturers, and all other components of the aviation system are regulated by the FAA.” 

Lawmakers in the House are expected to unveil their proposed changes to the air traffic control system when they draft the FAA bill this month. 

Dorgan and Lott said they are hoping GOP leaders will push ahead with the plan to separate air traffic control from the FAA, despite the pushback from some aviation groups in Washington. 

“We need a reliable, robust 21st century system that ensures access for all users—preserving and expanding services for all communities, large and small. We urge Congress to take action to preserve the FAA’s safety oversight of air traffic control while moving the operation and funding of air traffic control to a federally chartered, non-profit organization that would be governed and funded by the stakeholders and users of our nation’s aviation system.”

-Updated at 1:08 p.m. 

Tags Air traffic control ATC Bill Shuster Byron Dorgan FAA FAA bill Federal Aviation Administration Trent Lott
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