U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster will announce a plan Monday to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system, removing the government’s role in managing the world’s most crowded, complex air space.
Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has spent 18 months vetting a decades-old concept of taking the responsibility of air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration and establishing a not-for-profit entity to handle it.
Past lawmakers and two presidents have tried and failed.
Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, is bullish that the time is right. The industry has expressed frustration with unstable federal funding that limits its ability to modernize an outdated radar system.
“We have the safest air space in the world, but we are not good at all about deploying new technology,” he said. “If we don’t change what happens with the FAA, we are going to lose our lead in aviation.”
Shuster’s proposal would continue the FAA’s safety and regulatory responsibilities but break off air traffic control — the FAA’s largest complement with about 30,000 employees — and develop a not-for-profit corporation with a board of directors.
Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents 10 bargaining units for engineers and controllers, said he’s in favor of the concept and awaits details from Shuster’s proposal.
The 23 short-term extensions that preceded the FAA’s last reauthorization in 2012 mean the agency cannot make long-term plans, he said. The sequestration in 2013 hit the FAA hard with employee furloughs. It interrupted training of controllers and slowed hiring for a year as retirements mounted, Rinaldi said.
Concerns about another government shutdown are always present.
“If you look at budgets that are flat or starting to be reduced, something has to give,” Rinaldi said. “We have to build buildings. We have to build infrastructure. We have a lot of work to do. I really don’t think that the status quo is acceptable.”
Shuster began meeting with unions, carriers, airports and aviation interests in fall 2013, knowing the FAA’s authorization expires at the end of September. He wants Congress to pass the plan before then to avoid more short-term extensions.
He anticipates bipartisan support, given the union support and the chance to limit the size of government.
Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington, said that although there is widespread consensus to modernize air traffic control, the question becomes whether a new entity could complete the transition better than the FAA. Those who support the proposal must prove the agency is incapable enough to merit such a large-scale overhaul, he said.
“The magnitude of the change needs to match the magnitude of the problem,” DeGood said.
Recent years brought NextGen, an over-budget and delayed push to update the air traffic control system from outdated radar to GPS-powered satellite. Shuster said the FAA has spent too much time and money — as much as $6 billion — with little to show for it.
With a satellite technology, planes can fly closer together and spend less time on the ground, he said.
Under Shuster’s proposal, the government would not pay for capital improvements. The new entity could borrow money for the large-scale upgrades.
To fund operations, the not-for-profit would charge the airlines based on how many miles, planes and cargo they navigate through the skies. Most of the federal taxes that go toward funding the FAA — about $14 billion this year — would be eliminated.
The House’s aviation subcommittee held a hearing on the matter in March. Witnesses included consultant Dorothy Robyn, a former Obama administration official who worked in President Bill Clinton’s White House on a similar push in 1995. Back then, she said, just four nations had air traffic systems run by nonprofit or corporate entities. Today there are more than 50, including Canada.
Political will, she said, did not exist for change in the United States.
“We’ve had 20 more years of experience with the FAA trying to run what is a 24/7, high-tech service business out of a traditional regulatory agency that is micromanaged by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget,” Robyn said. “And it just doesn’t work.”
The United States operates the largest, busiest system in the world. It has 315 control towers and runs more than 132 million flights a year. Canada, the second-largest system, has 42 towers and about 12 million flights annually.
Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, said a modern system could mean fewer delays in the congested Northeast corridor. She supports Shuster’s plan, saying updates are not likely to happen with the existing system.
“We used to be a leader in this in the world, and my fear is that we are falling behind,” Cassotis said. “It will take something like this in order to catch up and get back in front.”