WASHINGTON — The union chief for air-traffic controllers said Monday he would negotiate with lawmakers and the aviation industry over whether to turn the system over to a private company, as it is in Canada, rather than insisting it remain a government function.
But Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told theAero Club of Washington he would oppose any effort to make air-traffic control a profit-making corporation. And he said stable funding is more important than organizational reform because funding disputes delay improvements.
“I’m willing to have those conversations and move forward on it as long as we find a stable, predictable funding stream,” said Rinaldi, who represents 20,000 controllers, engineers and other professionals. “We will fight and oppose any model that strives to make a profit from air-traffic control services.”
Despite broad agreement that the Federal Aviation Administration deserves stable funding, congressional budget tightening and political disputes have prevented that.
The agency had 23 short-term extensions before a four-year policy bill was approved in 2012. The period since then included a lapse in funding and a partial furlough.
More turmoil looms because the policy legislation expires Sept. 30. Lawmakers have been studying ways to separate FAA’s regulatory oversight of airlines from the service of air-traffic control. The controllers would then be privatized in a way that the system would be funded from the industry without congressional intrusion. Details about how to organize the corporation and how to fund it — perhaps through airline fees or other sources — are key points under discussion.
Dozens of other countries have adopted different versions of this strategy. While Canada is cited most often by advocates, it also has a fraction of the flights and complexity of the U.S. aviation system.
The head of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said at a March 24 hearing the aviation industry needs air-traffic control to be run like a business rather than a government bureaucracy.
“The bottom line is, after three decades of various modernization attempts and billions of taxpayer dollars spent, we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” Shuster said.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., proposed legislation April 16 to privatize air-traffic control, rather than have it within a federal agency. His goal would be for at least 95% of the current staff to take control of the system through a employee stock-ownership corporation.
“The U.S. economy loses tens of millions of dollars annually as the transition to a next-generation air-traffic control system falls further behind,” Mica said.
As lawmakers raised concerns in hearings, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta asked what problem they are trying to solve. Huerta has argued that improvements such as NextGen, upgrading plane tracking from ground-based radar to satellite-based GPS, depend on close coordination between controllers, airlines, airports and local governments.
“What the FAA needs in reauthorization is stability and predictable funding,” Huerta told the Senate transportation committee April 14. “We also need the flexibility to identify priorities and to match our services and infrastructure with the needs of our users.”
Rinaldi said in his speech that Canada’s system is intriguing but that it might not work for the larger and more complex system in the USA.
Canada has only one of the top 30 airports in the world, compared to 16 in the U.S., Rinaldi said. Canada has 42 air-traffic control facilities, compared to 342 in the U.S., he said. And Canada has 12 million flights a year, compared to 140 million in the U.S.
“No system is like the United States’ airspace system,” Rinaldi said. “No model used elsewhere is perfect, much less suitable for a system this large and complicated as ours.”
Rinaldi said improvements are needed to keep expanding the number of flights handled. He said 20 regional control centers across the country are all 50 years old, but that funding isn’t apparent to replace one of them, much less all of them.
“We need a modern, dynamic structure that is nimble enough to address all the activities in the national airspace system in a real-time basis,” he said.
Asked after his speech what funding method he preferred, Rinaldi declined to answer. He said others will decide on funding while he strives to keep the system safe and growing.
“I’m not a part of actually funding it,” he said.