There’s One Thing Both Sides in the Debate Over Privatizing Air Traffic Control Can Agree On

Uncertainty of FAA funding consistently cited as a problem during panel discussion.

As the House prepares to take up a major overhaul of the air traffic control system, representatives of the aviation industry, labor and government on Wednesday butted heads on the long-debated issue of whether to spin off the system into a private nonprofit.

They agreed only that Congress’s failure to provide dependable funding for the Federal Aviation Administration has forced new alliances based on the belief that the status quo is not acceptable.

The bill (H.R. 2997) negotiated in recent years by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and reported out of his Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in June and amended in September, would correct a “fundamental anomaly,” James Burnley, who was Transportation secretary under President Reagan, told an audience at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management.

The failure of the United States to mimic 60 other countries in turning the increasingly high-tech air traffic control systems over to a chartered, private board means “we have fallen ever further behind in the modernization of our air traffic control system,” Burnley said. The status quo is a “complicated,” 24-hour, seven-days-a week “dynamic operation” that can’t “be run within the constraints of a government program,” he said.

Mocking the fact that air traffic controllers still use—and will continue to for years—paper strips in tracking planes, the transportation attorney now a partner with Venable LLP said the FAA’s multi-million-dollar procurement regime was “written for a different era, for grant management,” and “needs to move away from a World War II-era system.”

He cited several recent Transportation Department inspector general reports showing that the FAA “lacks a clear process” for development of its modernization program called Next Gen, and has fallen behind on research and development as well as implementation of risk management.

Contrary to complaints by opponents of privatization, Burnley said, the all-important traveler safety responsibilities would “remain a core FAA function” under the new structure, and the proposed 13-member board would represent a variety of interests—with only two seats for the airline industry.

But Jim Coon, senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents “general aviation” in smaller airports, said the private board would “be dominated” by the “special interest” large airlines that have long lobbied for it. “Their fiduciary responsibilities are to the entity, to remain in the black,” he said. That means relatively little investment in rural or small airports and more “incentive to invest in where airlines fly.”

He warned of the bill’s unintended consequences. “Today we have the largest, most complex and safest air traffic control system in the world--what are we trying to fix?” Coon asked. He cited a Congressional Research Service report released this week by House Democrats saying the plan would trigger sequestration and is unconstitutional. “There’s no innovation in this proposal, there’s no competition in this proposal,” Coon added. Passengers care most about airline delays, “but this bill won’t fix that.” Nor does it provide any funding,” he said, to which Burnley replied that the appropriations are being prepared separately by the Ways and Means Committee.

What has swelled the momentum of the Shuster plan this year is newfound support from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents about half of the nation’s 30,000 employees who would be affected. “It’s nice to be a government employee, but our members care more about” sufficient resources, said Patricia Gilbert, the group’s executive vice president. Calling the status quo “unsustainable,” the union went with Shuster’s approach because it meets its four principles of protecting the rights of the workforce, ensuring safety and efficiency, providing stable predictable funding and maintaining universal service.

Opponents “who started out saying ‘no’ should put down their pitch forks, come into the room and stop scaring people,” Gilbert said. With the FAA’s current funding expiring in December and its authorization ending next March, controllers are facing staffing and equipment shortages. So in this “do more with less” era of government, “our big issue is funding stability.” Yes, her members care about their pay, she acknowledged, “but it’s not that funding is inadequate, it’s that the funding is uncertain.”

Eric Frankl, executive director of Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., stressing that he is speaking for himself, bemoaned the fact that the FAA’s budget used to be steady and multi-year, but that “to the extent that Congress can’t pass appropriations bills,” short-term governing by continuing resolution is likely to continue. Given the nation’s $20 trillion debt, he added, he has become “sympathetic” to notion of “doing something different for the good of the system.”

The Shuster plan, while “it could have been more collaborative,” may help confront such problems as the pilot shortage and the neglect of small airports where most pilots get their initial training, Frankl added. The problems are “not a reflection on the FAA, which does a great job.”

CORRECTION: The National Air Traffic Controllers Association represents about half of the nation’s 30,000 employees who would be affected, not all of them.

NEXT STORY: Low Morale Is Contagious