[Avionics Today 09-30-2015] The United States Senate has passed the Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2015, to provide a six-month extension of funding for the FAA through March 31, 2016. Under the extension, the FAA's current structure and management of its NextGen airspace modernization plan remains the same. Lawmakers are expected to use the extension period to decide on a long term funding measure for the FAA's involvement in aviation safety and certification oversight, as well as its Air Traffic Organization (ATO) role, a structure on which different segments of the U.S.-based aviation community remain divided on.
Delta Air Lines Boeing 767 at Delta's Technical Operations Center. Photo: Delta Air Lines.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster announced earlier this year his plans to release draft legislation that would convert the ATO into a non-profit organization that would involve minor regulation from the FAA. Shuster has previously stated that the separation between the FAA's safety and certification oversight and its role as an Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) is necessary in the long term, especially to continue progress with the implementation of NextGen automation platforms, concepts and technologies throughout the National Airspace System (NAS).
Primarily, the business aviation community represented by National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) CEO Ed Bolen has expressed opposition to this proposal
. He highlights research about similar separation between ANSPs and government aviation regulatory structures in other nations, such as Canada and the U.K., which have much smaller and less complex airspace than the U.S. The separation also has the possibility of reducing access to airspace for business aviation operators, NBAA has advocated.
In contrast, Airlines for America (A4A), representing the commercial airline community strongly supports the change, with the exception of one major carrier that it represents — Delta Air Lines. Ahead of the Senate's passage of the six-month FAA extension, Delta Senior Vice President Flight Operations Steve Dickson published an opinion article on the airline's website advocating that the FAA's current structure remains the same in the long term. Dickson states that Delta believes the separation would cause disruption to much of the progress that the agency has delivered over the last year.
"Separating the ATO from the rest of the FAA does not address the efficiency or performance of the air traffic control system. Nor can it change certain structural barriers in the system, such as the geographic proximity of airports in the congested northeast corridor of the United States, or the fact that no new airports are being built in that area. It would result in costly organizational disruptions, silos and new barriers to implementing operational improvements that are already proving to be successful," Dickson wrote.
The Delta Airlines captain also pointed to some of the benefits that the airline has realized through the introduction of new flight procedures at busier airports.
"In Atlanta alone, air travelers are seeing an average reduction in delays of about a minute and a half. At face value, that may not sound like a lot, but when you consider time on the ground, reduced fuel burn, and more efficient use of taxiways, runways and gates, that 90 seconds translates to customers waiting on tarmacs less, lower emissions, and between $14 million and $19 million in operational savings in Atlanta a year," wrote Dickson, noting that, in Denver, NextGen is also resulting in shorter and more direct flight paths.
The FAA's previous reauthorization funding measure came in 2012, following 20 consecutive temporary extensions that included a partial shutdown of the agency in 2011.