Efforts to upgrade the U.S. air-traffic system are on budget and steadily improving flight efficiency, a government watchdog has found, contradicting assertions by President Donald Trump and airline executives.
Just as the House is set to debate a bill that would separate the air-traffic system from the Federal Aviation Administration, a Government Accountability Office report requested by lawmakers shows that the existing system is performing well, undercutting one of the chief arguments by proponents of the change. The report was obtained prior to its release by Bloomberg.
New technology allowing airliners to fly more precise routes into major cities has saved airlines millions of dollars in fuel, the report found. In Atlanta, a separate FAA program bringing planes closer together allowed Delta Air Lines Inc. to increase daily operations by 6.8 percent.
The report is sure to become fodder in the debate over whether to split FAA’s air-traffic division into an nonprofit corporation, which is part of a House bill setting policy for the aviation agency that supporters hope to put up for a vote in coming weeks. The bill is needed to extend FAA’s funding and tax authority, which expires on Sept. 30.
Trump endorsed the air-traffic split in June, when he said the FAA had squandered $7 billion on new air-traffic technology and called the current system “a total waste of money.” A stream of airline executives have made critical statements about FAA, in speeches and congressional testimony, calling the agency’s current system outmoded.
The sponsor of the bill, Pennsylvania Republican Representative Bill Shuster, has said one reason the changes are needed is because the FAA has been slow to adopt new systems.
The GAO’s findings are closer to those of the private-plane lobby, which has argued that the existing system has performed well and that there’s no need to create a private air-traffic organization.
The FAA is in the midst of a decades-long effort known as NextGen to improve the air-traffic system, allowing planes to fly closer together and incrementally reducing delays. It’s based on a suite of new technologies that will use more precise satellite data to track planes, replace some radio calls with email-like text messages and spread weather and other data more quickly through the system.
The report isn’t entirely positive for FAA. It notes that some efforts to make the air-traffic system more modern have had to be shelved and some early estimates of benefits were overstated. It also chronicles some earlier failures at FAA to modernize its system, which prompted the GAO in 1995 to put it on a “watch list” of high-risk federal programs.
In recent years, however, the agency has done a better job of working with airlines and other in the aviation industry to prioritize where improvements are needed, and it hasn’t suffered any of the massive failures of earlier decades, according to GAO. The reviewers said they spent almost two years looking at the FAA and interviewed 34 aviation experts outside the agency.
The FAA is on schedule to at least accomplish its basic goals by 2025 and expects to do so within cost estimates from a decade ago, GAO said. The system is projected to cost the government $20.6 billion, including at least $5.8 billion that’s already been spent. Airlines and other aircraft owners will have to spend $15.1 billion to add new equipment to planes, GAO said.
Some of the challenges the GAO said the FAA faces in adopting the new technology may be cited by proponents of putting air traffic under a private organization. One of the chief issues FAA has encountered is a steady funding stream, according to the report.
The agency had to delay work on some programs in 2013 when its budget was slashed by automatic cuts known as sequestration. It has also had difficulty planning because Congress has repeatedly failed to pass bills outlining long-term strategy and budgets for the agency, according to GAO.
In the run-up to the debate on the House bill, a number of reviews of FAA have been issued and not all were positive. On Aug. 15, the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General concluded the FAA’s estimates of benefits from NextGen were “overly optimistic.”
In spite of Trump’s support, Shuster’s plan to put the air-traffic organization under a nonprofit corporation has faced intense opposition. The Senate Commerce Committee, which is drafting its own FAA legislation, won’t include the measure because too many senators in both parties oppose it, Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, has said.