With two of the nation’s four largest airlines based in North Texas and the country’s fourth busiest airport here, much is at stake for the region when the House this week (week of June 17-21) takes up a measure to separate air traffic control from the federal government.
The 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform & Reauthorization Act, HR 2997, will be under consideration for a vote in the House of Representatives. Similar legislation was proposed and passed committee vote last year but never reached the floor of the House. This time, with support of the Trump administration, the legislation stands a better chance of becoming a reality, aviation industry experts say.
Doug Parker, CEO of Fort Worth-based American Airlines, has for years advocated for air traffic control system reform.
“For airlines, the air traffic control system is in effect our production line,” Parker said at a recent aviation industry summit. “The quality and efficiency of our product is dependent upon how well this production line works. So we have a huge stake in a strong ATC system.”
The proposal before the House would transfer the country’s air navigation system to a nonprofit corporation while the FAA would maintain safety oversight of the nation’s airspace.
The private entity would be governed by a 13-member board of directors and be funded through user fees instead of the excise taxes collected by the government.
Parker has pushed for the nation’s air traffic control system to be turned over to a not-for-profit, allowing the system to receive billions of dollars in bond financing for long-term capital expenditures and planning, and for a steady stream of training and recruiting of employees.
“We have an antiquated ATC system that costs Americans lots of time and is much worse than we have in many other parts of the world,” Parker said in an interview on CNBC.
Accelerating the pace of moving to next-generation air traffic control will increase safety, reduce delays, lower carbon emissions, open up more capacity for competition and improve service to the traveling public, Parker said.
Not true, says Selena Shilad, executive director of Alliance for Aviation Across America, a nonprofit that opposes ceding more power to the airlines.
“If you look at the history, the airlines have increasingly become anticompetitive,” Shilad said in a July 13 interview with the Dallas Business Journal. “They have combined into four commercial operators that control about 70 percent of the market. Seat space is decreasing. Fees — often secretive — are increasing. Airlines have cut off routes to small and midsize markets by about 20 percent.”
“There have been calls in Congress for more oversight (of airlines),” she added, “not handing them the keys to the air traffic control system.”
Another concern with the model pushed by Trump and the 21st Century AIRR Act is that transferring the country’s air navigation system to a private nonprofit entity would leave small airports and general aviation users behind.
General aviation in Texas supports an annual economic output of over $14.5 billion, more than 56,000 jobs and a total labor income of over $3 billion annually, Shilad said.
In North Texas, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly and representatives of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport also support modernization of the air traffic control system.
“As the administration and Congress look to make improvements in air travel, DFW Airport supports a comprehensive approach that addresses both airborne systems and airport infrastructure,” John Ackerman, executive vice president of Global Strategy and Development, said in an email response to the Dallas Business Journal.
“Modernizing the air traffic control system in conjunction with addressing the needs of our nation’s aging airports is the scenario that will best serve our American travelers,” Ackerman’s email said.
Kelly in a February conversation with Trump about aviation issues said an aging system causes congestion at major airports.
For his part, Trump, a former airline owner, seemed receptive at the time to the airlines’ concerns.
“I hear we’re spending billions and billions of dollars, and it’s a system that’s totally out of whack,” Trump said.
Shilad said changing the air traffic control system won’t improve business travelers’ ability to hopscotch across the country unfettered by delays.
“The Department of Transportation keeps track of all the reasons for delays,” she said. “It’s right there in black and white. The majority of reasons for delays are factors that are in the airlines’ control — not air traffic control.”