American Airlines chairman and CEO Doug Parker told Congress that US airlines favor moving US air traffic control (ATC) to “a commercialized, non-profit type governance structure.”
During testimony Tuesday at a House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on ATC reform, Parker, speaking on behalf of Airlines for America (A4A), said FAA is structurally ill-suited to operating ATC and suggested ATC management should be moved out from under the agency’s umbrella. ATC is “a commercial function that is run through a political organization and that creates all sorts of problems,” Parker told lawmakers. “If we ran our airlines the way ATC is run, we wouldn’t make decisions to invest in our future.”
Parker’s endorsement of an independent, partially privatized entity to run ATC appeared to receive a receptive audience among lawmakers and other ATC stakeholders, and also was backed by former FAA Air Traffic Organization (ATO) COO David Grizzle.
“Based on my experience and the failed half-measures of the past, I believe that our only solution is one that entrusts politically unencumbered air traffic governance and stewardship to individuals who understand and value the needs of the users, employees and passengers of the system and who have a continuing interest in and appreciation for this critical operation,” Grizzle told lawmakers. He called for “a not-for-profit [ATC] entity that has no stockholders, but is controlled by its board of directors, independent of the federal government except for safety oversight and appeal of rates and charges.”
While saying any FAA structural changes would need to be “carefully examined,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NACTA) union president Paul Rinaldi did not outright object to a potential partial privatization of ATC, noting that the “lack of a predictable,stable funding stream” for ATC—inherent in ATC being managed by an agency that is funded as part of the annual Congressional appropriations process—needed to be addressed in FAA reauthorization legislation set to be taken up by Congress later this year.
Pointing to NAV Canada—the private, non-profit entity that runs Canadian ATC—Rinaldi said, “The Canadian structure is very intriguing. I’m not ashamed to say I’m envious [of the more modern equipment Canadian controllers have]. There are a lot of things in Canada I find intriguing, but my number one concern is, is [the Canadian model] scalable” to the larger US National Airspace System (NAS)?
Parker emphasized that safety oversight would remain an FAA function. “Let us be clear that under any and all scenarios, first and foremost, the FAA must retain the role as a safety regulator,” he said. “Indeed, while we believe the FAA is already doing a commendable job in this capacity, a structure that allows them to focus solely on regulation and oversight has the potential to make the agency even more effective and efficient.”
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) noted FAA’s sluggish implementation of the satellite-based NextGen ATC system and said “the only answer” to fixing air traffic management in the US “is transformational reform that will ensure that our ATC service provider operates like a business, with no degradation in safety levels.”
Shuster added, “In the past 20 years, 50 countries have successfully separated their ATC service from the aviation safety regulator. They’ve taken different approaches, but with similar results: ATC systems have been modernized, safety levels have been either maintained or improved, service quality has been improved in most cases, and costs have been generally reduced … Given the size and complexity of our [NAS], we need to look at lessons learned and the best attributes from other countries and apply them here.”