The devolution of aviation safety

In 1958, after a series of deadly mid-air collisions and near misses, Congress eliminated the patchwork system of airline-run and federal control facilities and created the predecessor of today’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), tasking it with establishing a coast-to-coast system to keep air travelers safe. In the 58 years since, the FAA has been the model for aviation systems around the world, and it has set the gold standard for aviation safety.

This week, the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will consider the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, legislation that would shift air traffic operations to a private corporation and leave the FAA’s critical safety functions subject to congressional appropriations. This legislation devolves federal responsibility for our air traffic control system by handing it over to a private corporation, ATC Corp., which would be run by an 11-person board of industry representatives. Large commercial airlines would have the largest presence on the corporation’s board, with four members.

Despite claims from proponents of privatization of the air traffic control system, this legislation is a terrible deal for taxpayers and the traveling public, and it raises significant questions about the safety oversight of our national airspace system. Privatization supporters point to examples of private air traffic control systems in other countries as evidence that privatization could work in the United States. However, only two countries have privatized systems similar to what the AIRR Act proposes: Canada (NavCanada) and the United Kingdom (NATS).

NavCanada and NATS manage airspaces that are vastly different from that of the U.S., which is by far the busiest and most complex airspace in the world. According to the Department of Transportation inspector general, U.S. airspace is 2.5 times larger than that of the U.K. and more than four times larger than Canadian airspace. Air traffic controllers in the U.S. are responsible for tracking and coordinating 15.5 million instrument flight movements per day, compared to about one-third of that in Canada and the U.K. combined. In addition, there are nearly 210,000 general aviation aircraft based in the U.S., compared to 35,000 in Canada and 20,000 in the U.K.

Even with smaller, more manageable systems, Canada and the U.K. had serious issues after moving to privatized air traffic control — with taxpayers bearing the brunt of the pain. The Canadian government was paid $1.5 billion for the public facilities and equipment taken by NavCanada; after the transition, audits found that NavCanada had undervalued these assets, and Canadian taxpayers lost at least $1 billion on the deal. According to Delta Air Lines, after transitioning to the private system, Canadian travelers also felt the sting of a 59 percent increase in air traffic control user fees.

Travelers in the United Kingdom didn’t fare any better. After air traffic plummeted in 2001, British taxpayers paid $112.8 million to prevent an interruption in air traffic control services. In the years that followed the bailout, NATS hiked airline passenger user fees by 30 percent.

Under the AIRR Act, American taxpayers would get a deal that is far worse. The bill gives the FAA’s air traffic control assets, worth tens of billions of dollars and paid for by taxpayers, to the private ATC Corp. for free. Over the last 20 years alone, taxpayers have invested more than $53 billion into air traffic control facilities and equipment. Many of those assets are handed over to ATC Corp. if the AIRR Act is passed. Taxpayers also have no protections if ATC Corp. runs into financial trouble and can’t afford to manage air traffic control operations — meaning taxpayers would be on the hook to bail it out.

Like NavCanada and NATS, ATC Corp. would determine policy for the whole industry, including flight routes, schedules and airplane noise issues. The corporation also would have the power to shift operational costs to passengers, general aviation and other users with increased taxes and fees. Today, passengers have influence through their elected representatives regarding aviation taxes, which are set by Congress and pay for the system. Under the AIRR Act, ATC Corp. has the power to shift operational costs to passenger, general aviation and other users of the national airspace system with increased taxes and fees. Under this proposal an unelected private corporation, including the airlines that charge $25–40 per passenger bag, would determine how much consumers should pay for air traffic control.

Advocates for privatization argue that our air traffic control system has suffered under years of congressional mismanagement. I agree that the Republican Congress has failed in its role of keeping the government open and maintaining a predictable funding stream. However, the AIRR Act would tear the FAA in two and leaves remaining functions, including safety oversight and certification programs, vulnerable to future budget cuts, sequestration and government shutdowns. By shifting existing trust fund revenue to airports, it leaves safety programs completely reliant on general fund appropriations dished out by Congress. The AIRR Act also severs ties between the Department of Defense and the FAA, a collaboration that has protected the national airspace system during national emergencies. As a non-voting member of the corporation, the Department of Defense will have little control over changes made to the national airspace system.

The FAA needs reform, and there are areas of the agency that are crying out for transformation. Procurement and personnel management are prime examples. Shutdowns and sequestration have made it impossible for the FAA to plan and make the major long-term investments it needs to implement new technology. We should not ignore these problems. As an alternative to privatization, I will offer amendments that target the areas of the FAA that need reform and protect funding from congressional dysfunction.

We cannot jeopardize aviation safety by devolving that responsibility to private interests with eyes trained on balance sheets. We should not hand over a public asset worth tens of billions of dollars to a private corporation for free, and we cannot give a private corporation the power to tax the American public to pay for a traditionally governmental function. The AIRR Act will not fix the real problems plaguing the FAA. I urge support for the targeted solutions, not a radical privatization scheme that gambles with aviation safety.

DeFazio has represented Oregon’s 4th Congressional District since 1987. He is ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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