Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the celebrated US Airways pilot famous for making an emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River in 2009, said he is opposed to legislation that would spin off the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system into a private nonprofit agency. He argued that the legislation would give too much power to the larger airlines.
“There are other, better ways to solve this political budget problem — by giving the FAA, in running the air traffic control system and making capital improvements to the air traffic control system, more predictable multi-year funding — without giving away the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines to control access and fees and pricing too,” Sullenberger said Thursday.
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers last month introduced legislation that would reauthorize the FAA for six years and create a federally chartered, not-for-profit entity called the American Air Navigation Services Corporation to handle air traffic control. The nonprofit would be governed by a board including the transportation secretary, people nominated by the airline companies and representatives of the air traffic controllers’ and pilots’ unions. The board members could not be employees of any industry stakeholders. The entity would be financed through service fees on industry stakeholders.
Spinning off air traffic control has been a long-time project of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., lead author of the bill. He argues that a private nonprofit would act faster in updating the FAA’s system from a radar-based one to a GPS-based one. Initial co-sponsors of the legislation included Reps. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., Sam Graves, R-Mo., Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. The legislation passed out of committee last month and has been endorsed by the Trump administration.
The National Air Traffic Controller’s Association has also backed the legislation, stating that private nonprofit entity would not be subject to the periodic budget shutdown that other government entities face when Congress gridlocks over a budget. Ensuring a steady revenue stream has been a key concern of the industry. The legislation would also carry over the union’s existing contract with the FAA to the new entity.
Critics like Sullenberger counter that the makeup of the nonprofit’s board would give the major airlines to much much leverage is determining fees it charged. “Why in the world would we give the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines? Because they definitely have their own agenda to lower their costs. Commercial aviation, airline aviation, has become an extraordinarily cost-competitive industry globally, and it becomes more so by the day.”